Published July 9, 2019
Dear 2020 Democrats—all 23 of you who are running for president:
You are itching to be rid of Donald Trump. Who can blame you? Of course, if this were a normal Republican presidency, I would not share your feelings. Not remotely. As a lifelong conservative, I think your policy ideas are ill-advised. But this cycle, other Trump-disgusted Republicans and I can contemplate voting Democrat. We could do so not because we’ve become progressives, but because we think it’s in the long-term interests of conservatism and the country to be rid of Trump. If he gains a second term, conservatism may well be irredeemably tarnished. Still, much will depend upon whether the Democratic Party can resist its own drift toward Trumpiness. I’ll explain, but first, let me make the case that you should court Republican refugees like me in 2020.
You may think you don’t need us—but you’d be wrong. I know things are looking good for you: Trump’s approval rating has never topped 46 percent, and among younger voters, millennials and Gen Zers, his support is 30 percent or below. But Trump was elected with the lowest approval ratings of any major candidate in history. Polls can disguise as well as reveal. The “shy Tory” phenomenon—in which voters seem disinclined to tell pollsters that they support conservatives—is real across the globe, as evidenced most recently by the upset victory of the conservatives (called “liberals”) in Australia. Right-wing populism continues to show strength worldwide as recent election results in Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines attest. And if the results of the 2018 midterms have you feeling confident, you should look to the not-so-distant past. Democrats were pasted in the 2010 midterms and yet President Barack Obama glided painlessly to reelection in 2012.
While we’re on the subject of the midterms, remember that your 2018 victories were not a left-wing triumph. Your 40-seat pickup was due in no small measure to Republicans and independents who voted Democrat. In other words: Voters like me.
Democrats are well-positioned to win in 2020 by embracing political normalcy again. They can follow the path that brought Warren Harding to the presidency a hundred years ago, when, after World War I and the Spanish flu, Americans thought they’d seen the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, war, pestilence and death. Harding ran on a “return to normalcy” and won in a landslide. Trump’s tenure has not, thankfully, featured pestilence or war. It’s more like the Three Stooges than the Four Horsemen. Still, today, many of us are prepared to put our long-term goals of balanced budgets and less government-controlled health care aside to feel some sense of political equilibrium again.
But that’s not the tone you are adopting. First, you seem taken with the idea of executive overreach. At the second candidate debate, Senator Kamala Harris declared that “When elected president of the United States, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to pull their act together … and put a bill on my desk for signature” for new gun control measures. And if Congress does not, she said, she will take executive action to put in the “most comprehensive background check policy we’ve had,” require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to take the licenses of gun dealers who break the law and ban the import of assault weapons. She further declared her intention to reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status on “Day One,” not just for those brought here as children but for their parents and for veterans.
By what authority? This is precisely the kind of power grab that Trump engaged in when declaring his spurious state of emergency to redirect funds to his border wall. And though Democrats’ frustration with his lawlessness is justified, this would represent a total vindication of it. If Democrats respond to Trump’s arrogation of power by doing the same thing, our constitutional system is threatened.
It’s not just Harris. Beto O’Rourke has said that, while he opposed President Barack Obama’s reliance on executive authority to change immigration law, he would resort to it to fight climate change, “because we don’t have time to waste and there’s some things that are under the purview of the administration.” Like O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren vows that on her first day in office she would issue an executive order “that says no more drilling—a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands.”
Is this the Democratic version of “I alone can fix it?” For all his crazy-uncle socialism, at least Bernie Sanders promises to propose legislation—not to rule by decree.
The assertion of unlimited executive power is not just contrary to the Constitution; it’s also a recipe for rising political tensions. If I believe that a Democrat will propose legislation with which I disagree, I know I stand a good chance of having my representatives modify or even block it. That’s not true of executive action. The stakes of each presidential contest thus get ratcheted up, as both sides fear that the next president, unconstrained by Congress, can lurch the country in a dramatically new direction. That severely decreases the chances that all of you, hopeful Democrats, can bring more centrist voters over to your side.
Second, have some respect for the norms and institutions that undergird our system’s stability. You claim to be dismayed by Trump’s norm-shattering ways, and yet your proposals are political earthquakes. At least four Democratic presidential contenders—Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Warren—have endorsed eliminating the Electoral College, and one, Harris, has pronounced herself “open” to it. Warren, Bill De Blasio and Harris would abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is a relatively new agency, created in 2003, but enforcement of immigration law is not. Harris and Buttigieg also favor packing the Supreme Court. The court has had nine justices since 1869. Remember, when FDR attempted to pack the court in 1937, he was thwarted by his own party. If Democrats take this step, it will invite further erosions of tradition by the next Republican majority. And, like executive orders, it will heighten the sense that presidents are would-be emperors.
Sanders, Cory Booker, Harris, Warren, Julián Castro and Andrew Yang have endorsed the “Green New Deal,” and Amy Klobuchar and Gillibrand support the “aspirations” of the plan, if not the details. The plan would demand a vertiginous (in fact, impossible) reordering of our entire government and economy—for instance, by requiring the refurbishment of every single building in the country. If that isn’t enough, the Green New Deal also requires that all Americans be provided with health care, good jobs and “access to nature.” Stalin promised every kid a happy childhood. This is close.
There’s a clear way forward, Democrats, and it is grounded in the Constitution. Do what you think is right—propose legislation to fix Obamacare or spend more on basic research of climate change or whatever—but in the constitutional way. No sweeping, federalism-smashing plans to overhaul everything in the name of your preferred policies. And please, don’t call for the abolition of traditions and constitutional structures, like the Electoral College, that make voters nervous about your stewardship.
Joe Biden is one candidate who seems to understand voters’ longing for political quiet after the upheaval we’ve lived through. He hasn’t called to abolish ICE; he is fine with nine justices on the Supreme Court; and he intends to keep the Electoral College as he found it. He has not succumbed to the temptation of executive orders, and has in fact called them “wacko.”
Democrats would be wise to embrace that sensibility, in the person of Biden or another, not just because it could win, but because it’s important for all of us, right and left, to turn our faces away from Caesarism—of the right or the left.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.