Ask This Imperial Presidency Question at the Next Democratic Debate

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History judges the U.S. not only on the Presidents it chooses, but also on the questions we ask of those aspiring to the Oval Office. And that’s a sobering thought.

Remember in 2016 when somehow nobody ever thought to ask Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton about climate change? That omission hasn’t aged well.

In the 2020 election cycle climate change can actually be discussed in the Democratic debates, now that scientists fear it’s too late to avert serious consequences. And we also get questions that sound like they were drafted by the GOP to pit progressives against each other.

But instead of getting mad about that, take a step back. If recent history is any measure, there’s probably a key question that in 2024 we’ll say, “Why didn’t we ask that in 2019?”

Ari Fleischer came up with his list of tough questions, which included asking Bernie Sanders if he’s ever flown first class. Which is pretty much exactly the kind of drivel you expect from a former Presidential press secretary who declared that “all Americans… need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

Ari’s arrogance behind the podium, though, points the way to the question I think is most essential right now. It addresses a problem that’s right in front of us, and it’s not just a “cancer on the Presidency” — it is the Presidency as a cancer.

I’m talking about the Imperial Presidency. This subject and phrase is hardly new; it was made famous no later than 1973, with historian Arthur Schlesinger’s book by that title. Its premise is that the executive branch of the U.S. government has usurped power from the other branches and pushes our republic closer and closer to a monarchy. This claim resonates in 2019: Donald Trump has made spectacularly clear how limited our ability is to rein in a President dead-set to flout the laws and the traditions governing his position. It’s feared, and not without reason, that a second Trump term could present an existential threat to America as a government of laws, not of men. This is, after all, a President who openly jokes about staying in office past his Constitutionally limited two terms.

The Democratic candidates love to Trump-bash. But is the solution to the deeper problem of a scoff-law President simply choosing someone who’s nicer? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Democrats are not immune. The Imperial Presidency has been a fully bipartisan initiative. Progressives (the Roosevelts) as well as conservatives (Reagan, George W. Bush) and those in-between (e.g., Obama) have succumbed, as recounted by Andrew Sullivan recently. In fact, generations of Presidents set the table for Trump by extending their powers from the bully pulpit to the pax Americana to America’s version of a global gulag archipelago. With intentions good or ill, they paved the road to Trump.

And so, to the Democrats on the stage: pummeling Trump isn’t enough. He’s a symptom of the larger Imperial Presidency problem, the culmination of too many people looking the other way when their guy was in the Oval Office. Now, it’s plainly out of control. There may be only one person in the United States of America who can right-size the metastasizing executive branch, and cure the Presidency of being a cancer on the nation.

And that’s the President herself. Or himself.

So, here’s the question that I think should be asked at the next Democratic debate. It’s the question we should be asking each other, too:

We see in the words and actions of Donald Trump the threat to democracy posed by what’s called the “Imperial Presidency,” in which a lack of checks and balances and a reliance on tradition allows the Executive Branch to grow in power over the other branches. What would you, as the President of the United States, do to check the power of the Office of the President so that Imperial Presidents are less of a threat to democracy in the future?

Does anyone have the guts to ask it?

Do any of the Democratic hopefuls have the guts to answer it?

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