February 19th, 2016 // 4:02 pm @ Oliver DeMille
When Republicans are thinking about who to elect as president, the majority of them are looking for the best commander in chief. In contrast, Democrats are seeking the best Chief Executive. Not every rank and file party members realizes this difference, of course, but it is very much part of our culture.
Make no mistake: These are very different jobs. The commander in chief has the fundamental purpose of keeping America and Americans safe. The Chief Executive analyzes, oversees, and improves the nation in many ways, trying to make things as good as possible for everyone.
In fact, these divergent views clarify the biggest differences between the two parties:
- Republicans typically want a “president” who keeps the nation strong militarily and economically.
- Democrats generally seek a “President” who looks around the nation and its many states and communities, assesses potential needs in a number of areas, and sets out to deliver an ongoing list of improvements.
It is interesting just how the Constitution describes the role of president. Article II, dedicated to the presidency, contains four sections. Section 1 deals with elections, who is eligible to be president, the president’s salary, and the oath of office. Section 4 addresses impeachment.
The real meat of the presidency, including executive powers, are found solely in Sections 2 and 3, and take up only four paragraphs. The Constitution gives the president only 12 powers, each clearly spelled out:
- He is the commander in chief of the military.
- He may require written opinions from anyone serving as head of a department in the executive branch.
- He can grant reprieves and pardons.
- He can make treaties, as long as two-thirds of the Senate agrees.
- He can appoint ambassadors, justices of the Supreme Court, and other federal officials, as long as two-thirds of the Senate agrees.
- He can fill vacancies in federal offices during recesses of the Senate.
- He shall from time to time give a report and recommendations to the Congress.
- He may, in a time of extraordinary circumstances, convene Congress and/or adjourn it (this was defined by the framers mainly as a time when a declaration of war was needed).
- He can meet with foreign diplomats.
- He shall take care that all the laws are faithfully executed.
- He shall commission all the officers of the United States.
One more power, a check on the legislative branch, is given to the president in Article I, Section 7:
- He can veto a proposed law.
All of these except number 12 are roles of commander in chief. That’s why 12 appears in Article I, because it is the only legislative power the president has: a veto. That’s it.
The Final Say
None of the other 11 powers are that of a chief executive, much less a “Chief Executive.” Literally—none. Only power 7 could even be construed as a chief executive power, and it is very weak: it only consists of reporting to Congress and recommending ideas. Nothing else. Note that both reporting and recommending ideas are what inferiors do to superiors, not what a Chief Executive does.
The Constitution gives the president no power to look around the nation, see what is needed, and seek to implement it—except, again, power 7, in which he can use his State of the Union address to recommend his ideas to Congress. Still, this is the power to recommend. Period. Nothing more. Congress then gets to decide whether to apply or ignore his recommendations.
Otherwise, the president isn’t given any Constitutional power to act in a chief executive role. The closest the Constitution comes to this is power 10, which is to take care that the laws of the nation are faithfully executed. But even in this, the president is simply carrying out the law—he doesn’t get to determine what it should be.
Yes, as mentioned, he can veto a proposed law that he doesn’t like. But Congress has the final say: If Congress overrides the veto, according to the Constitution, the president must implement the law—along with all the ones he does like. This is the clear the meaning of power 10.
Again, the idea of the U.S. President as the “chief executive,” or the “CEO of the nation,” as some recent presidents have suggested, is simply not part of the Constitution. The phrase used in the Constitution itself is “commander in chief,” and his job is to keep America safe, not to go around finding things that need improving and try to make them happen.
This is a major divide between the two dominant American political parties. Most Republicans aren’t about to agree that the president has any right, power, or authority to act as a Chief Executive or National CEO, overseeing the Congress, the Courts, or private citizens. They simply do not believe the Constitution allows it. And, in this, they are absolutely correct.
Republicans are at times divided about the role of the president, some wanting to give the Oval Office more power and others wanting to keep such powers strictly limited to the Constitution. But this debate nearly always centers around national security, or in a few cases, the economy and the way major economic policies impact national security.
The Democratic Party, in contrast, generally insists that the evolution of American government has moved the nation beyond such Constitutional considerations—that the American people now want a President who acts as both Commander in Chief and also Chief Executive. Note that such a role would allow the President to issue Executive Orders at will—not just to those who work for him in the executive branch of the federal government, but to anyone. Or everyone. This includes Judges, Justices, Governors, Senators, private citizens—or anyone else.
This is entirely unconstitutional. In fact, it’s not even close to the Constitution.
In all this, the two parties are at an impasse. And most of the regular people—who seldom focus on the specifics of the Constitution outlined here—tend to lean toward one camp or the other. Some think the presidency should be limited, checked and balanced by Congress, the courts, and especially the words of the Constitution; and others feel that if we’re going to have a president, he should have the power to see what the nation needs and just issue commands and policies to make it happen.
These two views are entirely incompatible with each other. They can’t cooperate. They can’t intertwine. They are opposites. Either we elect a president to be the commander in chief, limited to the 12 powers outlined by the Constitution, or we elect a Chief Executive Officer who we allow to use powers beyond the Constitution.
Many Americans see the failure of parties to cooperate as a problem, a weakness in Washington and its politicians. But the challenge goes much deeper than this. It is structural. To repeat: The framers gave us a Constitution with a president who is commander in chief, has only 12 specific powers, and is limited by law from doing anything else. They did this on purpose—because after living under a King, they didn’t want an executive with a lot of power.
In fact, they didn’t want an executive with anything except the bare minimum of power needed to keep the nation safe. They wrote about this extensively in the Federalist Papers, and they meant it. (Specifically, see Federalist Papers 23, 24, 25, 26, 34, 38, 40, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 58, 67, 69).
The Anti-Federalists almost blocked the ratification of the Constitution on this one issue: they were afraid the president would eventually gain too much power. They defined “too much power” as having any power beyond the 12 presidential powers written in Article II, Sections 2-3 and Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution.
The Federalists promised that this would never happen. In fact, in Federalist Paper 69 the founders argued that the president would have less power over the nation than a governor would have over a state like New York, except in a time of war, and only if a war was officially declared by Congress. At the end of such a war, the president’s power would once again be less than a state governor in his state.
This is what the founders promised, and without this promise the Constitution would not have been ratified. But why did they promise this? Because it is precisely what the Constitution itself says. We just need to follow it.
The Parties Within The Parties
So, yes, the parties have a fundamental disagreement. And there’s really no getting past it. Because of this underlying reality—even when it isn’t brought up—the parties will always be strongly opposed. They will always be passionately, even angrily, against each other. They will always hotly contest the other, and do so at times in uncivil and extreme language and tones.
This escalates even more when anyone on the Republican side of the aisle agrees with the view that the president should have broader, more extensive powers than the 12 specifically outlined the Constitution. When this happens—and it happens frequently nowadays—the anger, frustration, division and arguments only intensify.
Indeed, these two factions of the Republican camp are often nastier toward each other than the two major parties. Yet this is the crux of our democratic republic: To follow the Constitution, as it is written (including amendments), or to let presidents, judges, and political parties redefine and ignore it as they see fit.
The reality is that the president only has 12 constitutional powers as listed in the Constitution, and our nation will only thrive when the Oval Office has no additional powers beyond these 12.
As for politics, most Americans want Republicans and Democrats to cooperate. If this means working together to make sure all government officials and entities follow the Constitution, as it is written, it’s a wonderful idea.
But if cooperation between the two parties means what it usually does in today’s media—giving in to the side that seeks to ignore the Constitution and expand government even further beyond its constitutional limits, such cooperation is one of the worst political ideas imaginable.
“Cooperation” is too often simply a mainstream media buzzword for letting the political professionals and bureaucrats run things (all the while expanding the size and scope of government), while the regular people quietly submit to the rule of their “superiors.” This is not what we want, regardless of political party.
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