Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

Reactions to the surprising failure of my quadrennial presidential candidate executive power survey

Every four years, before Iowa and New Hampshire, I ask presidential primary candidates to answer a short set of hard questions laying out their understanding of the scope and limits of executive power. Generally the questions get at dilemmas in which the rules are murky and contested. Because he became president, Senator Barack Obama’s answers – and his later departures from a few of the limits he had identified – have proven to be of enduring interest, as I lay out in several moments in Power Wars.

But after great success in 2007 and 2011, this year, as I reported last Sunday, the project was a failure. (When my story went to press, only Rand Paul had answered the questions, although Hillary Clinton had provided a general statement. On Sunday, Ben Carson provided answers.) I laid out some informed speculation about what seems to have changed, which boils down to two takeaways: establishment Republican policy experts are demoralized and marginalized in the face of their party rank-and-file’s embrace of Donald Trump, and Clinton is preparing to govern through unilateral executive action in what is very likely to be an era of continued partisan polarization and Congressional paralysis/”obstructionism.” In that sense, I argued, the very failure of the project this cycle has still told voters some things they need to know.

Today the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire published an editorial about the project’s failure, “Executive Authority Murkiness,” noting that presidents’ use of unilateral executive actions to govern

has increased with congressional paralysis, which has become a political fact of life that’s not likely to change with the next election. So it could be that the candidates didn’t answer because they didn’t want to limit their powers needlessly or because the question has yet to be answered definitively by anyone. Several candidates, including Trump and lawyers Cruz and Marco Rubio, appear to have views on the extent of presidential power that, with less than a dozen days to go before the primary, voters should think about.

This failure of the project has gotten some attention elsewhere, including a couple posts by Scott Shackleford at Reason,Resolved: This Is Not an Election About Restraining the President,” and “Ben Carson Weighs In on Limits to the President’s Power.” He wrote that “It’s a dismaying outcome that will not prompt significant outrage in a presidential cycle that is becoming increasingly full of authoritarian promises.”

I continue to be struck by how different the results were from the last two cycles, when showing oneself to be unwilling (or unable) to answer the questions seemed to strongly correlate with not being a serious candidate.

Specifically, in 2007, the candidates who answered the questions were Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, John McCain, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Bill Richardson, and Mitt Romney; Rudy Giuliani did not answer them, but – like Clinton this time – at least submitted a general statement drafted by former Office of Legal Counsel head and solicitor general Ted Olson, who was advising his campaign. The only two candidates whom I contacted who didn’t respond at all that cycle were Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

And in 2011, when only the GOP was having a primary, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney all answered the questions, while only Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain (who had already dropped out before the deadline), and Rick Santorum did not respond.

But this cycle, as the chart on the first page of the below document set shows, the political moment has proved to be very different: