During the January 7, 2012 Republican debate in New Hampshire, George Stephanopoulos questioned Mitt Romney on whether he would support a state ban on contraception. Romney responded that he was not going to address a hypothetical situation that no state was considering, but Stephanopoulos doubled down and continued to press him, ultimately to a chorus of boos. In a Daily Caller piece that hit the front page of The Drudge Report the next day, Matthew Boyle blasted Stephanopoulos for his obvious partisanship. It was a stupid, irresponsible question, to be sure, but not because Stephanopoulos is a one-time Bill Clinton political operative acting in a partisan manner or because the question was purely hypothetical; it was stupid because that type of question is outside both the purview of the executive branch and the president’s constitutional authority.
The executive branch is the most misunderstood in the general government. The American people, the modern media and obviously the current president seem to believe that the president can single-handedly solve the moral, ethical and economic problems of the day. He can part the seas, end poverty, “create or save” a job for every American and educate our children. Americans incorrectly expect as much if not more from the man behind the presidential seal. But, if the president and the candidates followed the Constitution as ratified by the states in 1787 and 1788, our “debates” would look more like this:
Question: “Mr. Candidate, what are you going to do to create jobs in this country?”
Candidate: “I will execute all constitutional laws the Congress sends across my desk and veto those that are not. George Washington set this precedent in his first administration and I would faithfully follow his example. I would certainly encourage Congress, as part of my constitutional duty to “make recommendations,” to facilitate the free market, but my veto is not a partisan hammer.”
Question: “Mr. Candidate, do you believe in same-sex marriage?”
Candidate: “I don’t know how that relates to my job as president of the United States. That is an issue for the people of the states and the church, not the general government. The founding generation and those who wrote and ratified the Constitution were clear. Domestic issues were to be handled by the states, not the general government.”
Question: “Mr. Candidate, what are you going to do to solve our dependency on foreign oil?”
Candidate: “As I said before, I will execute all constitutional laws the Congress sends across my desk and veto those that are not, like Grover Cleveland in the 1880s and 1890s. I would, as part of my foreign policy and akin to that of our first five presidents, encourage peaceful trade with all parts of the world while avoiding unnecessary foreign entanglements and wars. I would again also encourage the free market, including ending laws that place excessive regulation on our energy sector, but I would not support energy subsides or any other unconstitutional legislation that promotes one industry or sector over another at taxpayer expense.”
Question: “Mr. Candidate, can you give me your policy on healthcare, taxes, education and social welfare?”
Candidate: “For the third time, I will execute all constitutional laws the Congress sends across my desk and veto those that are not. As per Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress controls the purse strings. I believe that low taxes are essential for a free economy and would encourage their immediate reduction, but the people of the states elect the Congress and it has a constitutional job to produce a budget and control revenue. As per the Constitution, I am not the legislator-in-chief or a prime minister. Other laws relating to healthcare, social welfare and education are unconstitutional at the federal level and are a state issue. Thus, because I would veto all unconstitutional federal laws, they would certainly be subject to my pen, and because I cannot execute an unconstitutional federal law, those that fall under that umbrella would not be enforced, including national healthcare.”
Question: “Mr. Candidate, how can you believe that treasured social welfare programs are unconstitutional? That is just too radical!”
Candidate: “I guess if you consider the Bill of Rights and the Constitution to be radical, which they are not, then I am a radical. The debates during the Philadelphia Convention and the state ratifying conventions clearly illustrate that the states were to handle the domestic concerns of the people. Congress, they believed, was unable to micro-manage the specific concerns of a state or community. They were correct. Additionally, according to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution — the amendment typically first among those proposed by the states — all powers not delegated to the general government are reserved to the states and the people. I don’t see social welfare in the enumerated powers of the Constitution.”
Question: “Obviously you believe in some archaic and undemocratic notions of government. Your views would have us descending into chaos! Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that we need the power of the federal government and a strong executive to secure the ‘blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’?”
Candidate: “I believe in American democracy, the way the founding generation believed in it. They argued in 1787 and 1788 that a representative ratio in the House of Representatives of 30,000 to 1 was barely adequate to represent the people. We are now at 700,000 to 1. Obviously, the people have no control over the Congress; the states, as a result of the 17th Amendment, have lost control of the Senate, and, as I said before, the president by design is not a prime minister charged with driving a legislative agenda. “Democracy” carried on quite well in the early republic and the idea that a strong executive is needed to provide liberty is the antithesis of the word. Strong executives never safeguard liberty. History has shown they only destroy it. As John Dickinson said in 1787, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
Of course, such answers are typically never given in the debates. All of the current Republican candidates, save Ron Paul, believe that a strong general government, in some shape or form, is the solution to our problems, and Americans lack the understanding of the Constitution necessary to challenge both the president and those seeking office on the constitutional underpinnings of their decisions (Paul received ribbing from the “conservative” Mitt Romney during the debate for his resolute defense of the Constitution). Instead of focusing on what the government or a presidential candidate will do about a particular issue, the first question should always be, “Where in the Constitution can you find the authority to do X, Y or Z?” Ninety percent of the time, if they answered honestly according to the Constitution as ratified by the states, their answer would be, “I can’t.”
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012). You can find his Facebook fan page here.