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Getting Perspective on the Presidency

I tried to do something last week that seems almost impossible to do in this era of constant stimulation, agitation and hot takes: I got some perspective on the president and the presidency. I spent three days last week at the "Presidential Ideas Festival" (aka Prez Fest) hosted by the University of Virginia's Miller Center. While there I asked presidential scholars and former administration officials to put this president and this current political moment into a more thorough historical context. 

Most importantly, I wanted to get a better understanding of whether the Trump presidency is an outlier or if the start of a trend. And, with the growing possibility of impeachment proceedings beginning in the House, I wanted to get historical guidance on whether we are in a constitutional crisis. And, if we aren't, how will we know when or if we are? I put much of this into my radio piece last week. But, I wasn't able to get all of my thoughts — and interviews — into that one hour show.



One thing that many of the participants in the conference stressed is that this country and this constitution are incredibly resilient. The bounds of the constitution have been tested many times over the years. But, since the end of the Civil War that rubber band has been stretched, but has never broken.

"As bad as things seem and feel now in our country — and it does feel bad and I share that sense of deep concern about our domestic political polarization, about what some have euphemistically called our post-truth leadership and I'm deeply concerned about our role in the world and the loss our prominence and our efficacy in projection of our values," Susan Rice, President Obama's National Security Advisor told me last week. "What I do think though, is that we need to understand this moment in the context of the broader sweep of history. If you think about where the United States has been and the kinds of domestic challenges and international challenges we have faced in the past, as bad as this moment may seem in the present, it doesn't compare to the Civil War. It doesn't compare to the challenges we faced with fascism during World War II and Nazism. It doesn't compare to the convulsions of the 1960s, when people who looked like me were being beaten and dogs sicced on them. And our cities were burning. And our campuses were in turmoil….So we need some historical perspective. And we also need to recognize that America is an incredibly resilient country. We are among the most innovative and creative and optimistic people I believe this world has ever seen and we have overcome all of these challenges and more. And, I believe with that perspective and a sense of purpose — and — I believe very importantly — greater unity, we can overcome this challenge as well."

Some argue that this perspective is unrealistic at a time when the institutions and rules that have guided the country and kept it from veering off the rails are broken. Social media has helped to accelerate the best and worst impulses of humans — making it harder than ever to feel like we have a grasp of truth or reality. What's to stop the next president from sowing chaos and division in the same way President Trump has been able to do so effectively with Twitter? 

Former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove, however, is not convinced that any other person could emulate the Trump presidency. Labeling Trump as 'sui generis,' Rove told me that "I don't see the institutions of the presidency will be altered dramatically by him. It's hard to sustain that level of public attention to your own personal agenda, that long, that hard, that harsh. He's inured to the kind of criticism that normal political figures try to avoid."

It wasn't that long ago, by the way, that many were worried that the aftermath of the 2000 election — the one which featured Rove as a key strategist — would plunge the country into a political and constitutional no man's land. Yet, here's how Brookings Institute scholar Tom Mann wrote about that election in January of 2001. "The U.S. constitutional system bent but by no means broke during this trying period. The contest over the election was resolved in the courts, and Al Gore acceded to the ultimate decision of U.S. Supreme Court in spite of his strong disagreement with it. Most Americans accept the legitimacy of Bush's election and are generously disposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. And President Bush has an opportunity—however daunting the obstacles—to reshape his agenda and coalitional strategy in Congress to reflect the new political realities and begin to forge a plausible program for governing."

Most pundits and voters, however, are comparing this era to Watergate — the last time the country saw the bonds of the constitution truly 'stretched.' While that moment "was horrible for the country to have to go through," University of Virginia presidential historian Barbara Perry told me, "it's a pristine example of the separation of powers and the checks and balance and the delicate balance working to perfection." A constitutional crisis was averted because, "each of the three branches — and I would even include the media…all of them in the constitutional structure that the founders had envisioned it would work were all working together to come to justice." In other words, Watergate showed us that the constitution worked just as the founders had intended it to do.

So, how confident is she that this delicate balance will hold in this current era?

"I think we are on the cusp of a constitutional crisis," Perry told me last week. She argues that it "remains to be seen whether the delicate balance of separation of powers and checks and balances the founders had devised will work – so far they are not." When I asked her what isn't working, she pointed to the election of President Trump in the first place. She argues that the "founders didn't intend for there to be demagogues in office, in fact they hoped that the electoral college would counter the populism that can lead to demagogues, and in this instance ironically it actually produced the demagogue in office."

Congress, as an institutional check on presidential power, is also not working. The president still enjoys unified GOP support in both the House and Senate (Rep. Justin Amash represents an outlier, not a building wave of Republican opposition). So, while Democrats argue that they have a constitutional duty to impeach the president, that process only works if both branches — and both parties — are on board.

This leaves the Supreme Court as the final institutional check on the president. It's hard to believe that the justices would vote unanimously against presidential power as they did in the 'tapes case' during Watergate. As such, Perry argues, it puts even more pressure on Chief Justice John Roberts to be, as she calls him, the 'pivot person' for how the court will act in a constitutional crisis.

But, if the institutions aren't working as intended, Perry argues there is one check on the president that the founders didn't think all that much about; the voters.

"The people are part of this delicate balance in a way that the founders didn't anticipate," Perry told me, "because they viewed 'the people' as white, male property owners. Now we have universal suffrage, and we have social media and 24/7 media — informing the people so the people will have a role here."

This isn't a failing of the constitution, but a reminder of how incredibly resilient and flexible the document is. Amendments to the constitution expanded the electorate — and it is that electorate that has the power to hold a president to account every four years. In other words, it's not an either/or: the constitution 'worked' because Congress impeached the president or the courts pushed back on presidential overreach, or it didn't 'work' because the voters had to make the final call on whether they wanted the president in office another four years. Both are equally important in upholding constitutional integrity and the system of government we hold dear.