To paraphrase the earworm theme song from The Lego Movie, everything’s transactional — everything is cool when you’re part of a team. The good news from the latest Pew poll is that skepticism over executive power at the expense of Congress and the judiciary commands majorities overall and in all three political affiliations. The bad news? Republicans are now least likely to worry about it.
I wonder why?
Currently, 66% of the public says “it would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems.” About three-in-ten adults (29%) offer the contrasting opinion that “problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts.” In March 2018, 76% of the public said it would be too risky to give presidents more power.
The survey by Pew Research Center, conducted July 10-15 among 1,502 adults, finds that Republicans’ views on this question have changed markedly since last year. About half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (51%) now say it would be too risky to give presidents more power, down from 70% last year.
The share of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts has increased 16 percentage points since then, from 27% to 43%.
If anything, that undersells the drama of the shift. Pew asks this question regularly which means we can see the history of the responses. When Barack Obama was in office, Republicans were much more enthusiastic about enforcing the coequality of the branches:
The support for an imperial presidency tripled among Republicans since Obama was in office. Skepticism dropped by 31 points, 29 of which went right into the endorsement column. It is by far the biggest shift among the three parties.
It’s all the more amazing for a party that has been traditionally animated by federalism and by limited government. Even while holding the presidency, Democrats — animated more explicitly by big government and federal control — weren’t this enthusiastic about a President Pen and Phone. Two-thirds of Democrats remained skeptical about such executive authority after nearly eight years of controlling the White House, even though Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and had stalemated Obama’s agenda, and at the time fully expected Hillary Clinton to take the reins in January 2017.
And now? We’re only two-plus years into Trump’s first term in office, and already Republicans are down to a bare majority on that same question, 43/51. Republicans still control the Senate and are presently stacking the judiciary with conservatives for the next generation, and yet it seems they’re still surrendering on small government and limited power.
But wait — it gets worse! Guess which wing of the party is driving those numbers?
The share of conservative Republicans who say that presidents could deal with problems more effectively if they “didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts” has doubled since March 2018. Today, about half of conservative Republicans (52%) hold this view, compared with 26% a year ago.
Moderate and liberal Republicans’ views on checks on presidential power have not shifted during this period. Currently, 27% of moderates and liberals say presidents would be more effective if they were less concerned about the courts and Congress, while a 68% majority say it would be too risky to give them more power.
Good Lord. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake ascribes this to the Trump effect on the Republican Party:
It’s difficult to separate this new poll finding from what has transpired over the entirety of the Trump presidency. Trump has sought to stretch his presidential powers to distances not even broached by Obama — including by using a national emergency declaration to build a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — and along the way he has run into a series of adverse court decisions. Many of these decisions were momentary and/or came in particularly unfavorable jurisdictions. But the setbacks have also included a number of instances in which the administration simply didn’t make a valid defense of the change, including recently when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority blocked the 2020 Census citizenship question.
When met with such decisions, Trump has often attacked the judges behind them, regularly labeling them “Obama judges” and the like. His comments about judges in 2017 even earned him a rebuke from his then-Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch.
Trump has also been stymied by Congress, even though Republicans controlled it for his first two years. The GOP passed tax cuts but was unable to repeal and replace Obamacare, thanks to defections from its own members, including the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). As with the judges, Trump hasn’t held back in criticizing McCain, even continuing that criticism following McCain’s death.
Against that backdrop, perhaps it’s not surprising that Republicans view Congress and the courts as an impediment to the policy proposals they and Trump want.
Transactionalism is the new animating principle in the GOP, apparently, if transactionalism can even be called a principle. It looks a lot more like tribalism write large than any kind of coherent principle or governing philosophy. People have claimed that “conservatism is dead” since the end of the Ronald Reagan presidency, but it never appeared truly defunct as an organizing principle. Now, maybe we should think about holding the funeral.