Someday, your side will lose
No matter how justified the ends may seem, the means must be constrained. Hold your comments about Dan Quayle and ask instead what we're doing to reel in Presidential power overall.
According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle was the voice of reason, telling then-Vice President Mike Pence to give up on any thoughts of overruling the 2020 election as he presided over the Senate: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero." Maybe that quote is true; maybe it's a fabrication. But Quayle does hold a law degree, and the reported advice certainly does comport with the law. No power to overturn an election resides with the Vice President.
■ The problem with a story like this is that the headline is so bright it obscures the real work to be done. "Dan Quayle comes to the rescue of the republic" (the words of MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell) is irresistible fodder for social-media commentary and cable TV punditry. Who can resist dredging up 30-year-old impressions left over from Quayle's time in office?
■ But talk, ultimately, is cheap. And there is work to be done. The Woodward/Costa book, "Peril", also claims that General Mark Milley, acting as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to implement controls to keep a bellicose President Trump from impulsively starting a war with China -- possibly a nuclear one.
■ These are worrying revelations -- and, if true, they may be deeply problematic for the civilian control of the military. But if all we do is get a little rattled by a book and spend some time engaging in some self-satisfied harrumphing about how lucky we are that things didn't go worse, then we've missed the point altogether.
■ "Speak little, do much", advised Benjamin Franklin. But how much has been done to truly rein in the Presidency? President Trump's term was bookended by Democratic opponents -- one who had six months in office as an outgoing two-term President between the 2016 nomination and the 2017 inauguration, and one who has had nearly eight months in office as the new President. In all of that time, what has been done to reel in the powers of the White House?
■ The Presidency is the Article II branch of government, and its place after Congress is no accident. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "[A] great part of the business which now keeps Congress sitting through the year will be transacted by the President." When read carefully, that simple line communicates quite a lot: The President isn't above Congress; the President serves to put the will of Congress into action.
■ Any residual doubt about the relative order of things should be resolved by noting that Congress can demand reports of the President (the State of the Union) and can fire the President (through impeachment). The President does not hold equal and opposite powers. And yet, eight months after January 6th and the events (like the Quayle call) reported to such mighty reaction, what has been done to order the Article II branch of government so that we can sleep soundly at night, no matter who gets elected next?
■ When President Biden says things like, "If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way", he's not communicating a message of modesty about Presidential powers. Nor is it Presidential modesty to nearly double the pace of executive orders over the Trump administration -- which itself issued them at a rate 70% higher than the Obama administration. We are heading in the wrong direction with powers about which there should be bipartisan concern. No matter how justified the ends may seem, the means must be constrained.
■ Even when used for purposes that seem justified and right, excessive powers are still excessive powers. It's not the purpose for which they are used that ultimately matters, it's whether anyone should use them at all. Never claim powers while in office that you wouldn't willingly hand over to your opponents -- because, if self-government is to have any hope of survival, sometimes your opponents will be in control. Expressing alarm about what's in a new book isn't sufficient. Fixing the systemic issues that give rise to alarm over military power or the reach of the Imperial Presidency are the acts that matter.