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What Democratic Primary Candidates Should Be Debating

“Are we ever going to be able to govern ourselves again if 50 percent of the country does not trust the other 50 percent?” asked Chuck Todd on the Meet the Press Daily, recently.

It’s a good question.

Nothing I have seen since the 2016 Presidential campaign gives me confidence that the existing political power structure in Washington — or in most state governments — respects the Founding Father’s vision of government.

Reason, compromise, and respect for checks and balances has been eroded to a point where the only goal is power over the people – with the power shifting back and forth between Republicans and Democrats based on promises made and never kept.

The Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 had a chance to use their series of debates to change this dynamic but they have chosen not to.

Their media partners are all too willing – or too myopic, or too ensnared in the system, themselves, to raise the alarm over the fundamental shift in power between Article One – the Congress – and Article Two – the Executive.

Legislating takes time.

In the 21st century, the process of legislating has not kept up with the demands of the electorate for immediate and complete satisfaction.

When the Objective is Power

Democrats have been quick to criticize President Trump’s frequent use of Twitter to make national policy – then codified into executive orders signed with the President’s ever present black sharpie. But they forget that Barack Obama famously said — after losing the majority in the US Senate in 2014 – “I still have my phone and my pen” – and he meant it.

Every president in recent memory has argued for an expanded set of executive powers – at the expense of Congress’ constitutional prerogatives and powers.

Congress, as a body, is more focused on members’ election(s) to the same or greater office than on doing the people’s business.

Voters now take it for granted only one major piece of legislation can be enacted during each presidential term = 2 congressional sessions. The rest consumed in the ceaseless mud wrestling for power.

A Republican House and a Republican Senate narrowly passed a tax “reform” bill in 2017 and, exhausted by that effort, failed to move any other urgently needed legislation – health care reform, fiscal reform, immigration reform and infrastructure renovation – promises not kept.

Two hundred or so bills have been written, debated and passed by the House of Representatives since Democrats took control in January, 2019 – as varied as election security upgrades, prescription drug coverage reforms and a solution to the Dreamers limbo status. But nothing has moved to the Republican controlled Senate floor for debate, lest the Democrats score a win.

It’s a circular firing squad. The out-of-power party declares the current president, the current congressional majority incapable of fulfilling its promises. “Throw the bums out and elect us” round and round every two years/four years/six years.

The ultimate losers in this situation are the American people increasingly frustrated by a system that does not work for them.

Embracing the Imperial Presidency

Most of the leading Democratic candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination are current or former members of Congress.

But nothing in their campaigns or the media moderated campaign debates demonstrate any level of concern about the surrender of legislative power to an omnipotent executive whom they aspire to become.

Only one primary contestant will earn the opportunity to compete in the general election. The rest will return to the Senate or private life – all the while railing at the “imperial presidency” — the usurpation of power – devoid of self-awareness.

Senators, the Vice President and others seem to have overlooked the opportunity to remind the American people of how our constitutional republic is supposed to work rather than reinforcing some of its most egregious recent short comings.

Kamala Harris promises that if Congress will not enact her gun control plan in 100 days –not debate, not improve – just pass (her plan) – she will do it by “executive order”.

Elizabeth Warren goes even further in her Medicare-for-All Plan. She promises to revoke legally granted drug company patents when companies do not bend to her demands.

Said a different way: Elizabeth Warren plans to grant to herself the unilateral power over patent enforcement that she declares a violation of international law when the Chinese do the same thing.

Does the media challenge her? Of course not. She gets testy when challenged.

Just as they don’t challenge the absurd math of Andrew Yang and his Universal Basic Income.

We need Substance over Sound Bites

Still Andrew Yang is different. Andrew Yang is less imperial and more imperious. He sees the future of a globally connected world and warns that America is not ready to compete in that world.

The media moderators of Democratic presidential debates need to steer the discussion in that direction – toward a discussion that demands a demonstrated, comprehensive command of the serious threats to American national security and economic security.

The moderators must seek concrete responses to these macro-level challenges from each aspirant rather than allowing candidates to “skate by” with disconnected 60-second micro-level, tactical plans. Voters are growing weary of proposals so-called solutions — crafted by professional political consultants – that are intended to garner votes while avoiding addressing the underlying challenges because “big ideas scare people”.

The power to make change happen begins with each voter demanding a debate that demonstrates fealty to the bedrock principles of constitutional separation of powers – checks and balances — while displaying thoughtful listening and creative compromise among and between the people who aspire to lead us.

Until the Democrats can organize their debates to illustrate these basic principles of American self-government – I am not sure it’s worth tuning in.

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