It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Though the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy oversells the case a bit (ceremonially, the president’s always had a bigger role than that of a “chief magistrate,” even if some of our first presidents were intentionally self-deprecating), we the people weren’t originally supposed to care overly much about the president at all. Originally, the president’s primary job was to ensure Congress’s laws were executed in a less immediately political fashion than they perhaps would have been if individual members of Congress were responsible for administering the laws they passed. Even now, we still don’t directly elect them — that’s what the Electoral College is for.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter whether your central planners are nationally revered Founding Fathers or Soviet bureaucrats — social planning is always destined to fail in the long run. Given enough time, someone will invariably pursue whatever benefits them up to the limits of whatever power they might individually possess. When you’re talking about the President of the United States, whom even the Founding Fathers granted an entire branch of the federal government to, it’s quite a lot of power indeed.
Besides, even when chief executives don’t have much power on paper, people still naturally grant them symbolic and ceremonial powers.
The mayor of Las Vegas, for example, is basically an at-large city councilmember — Carolyn Goodman isn’t even allowed to refuse to sign ordinances passed by the City Council. If she tries, the mayor pro tempore is legally required to sign the bills instead. Even so, the entire country is well aware of her thoughts on the transmissibility of COVID-19.
Similarly, the mayor of Reno is also functionally an at-large City Council member. That famously led the Nevada Supreme Court to conclude that, if someone was unable to serve in Reno’s City Council because of term limits, that person also was unable to serve as Reno’s mayor. Even so, there’s not a video of At-Large Councilmember Devon Reese greeting every visitor at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, despite his vote counting just the same as the mayor’s and despite his position being just as at-large as hers is — no, that honor goes to Mayor Hillary Schieve.
For better or worse, people love having someone to look up to — or, failing that, a single person to blame for anything and everything under the sun.
Good luck finding anyone with a strong opinion about a county commissioner, even though, politically speaking, we live in a state with the strongest counties and some of the weakest cities in the country. Only one county in the country ever built an interstate highway without significant state or federal funding; that same county also runs a consolidated police force which polices nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s population. Frankly, the only thing keeping Clark County from becoming its own state at this point might be its recently surrendered in-state water rights, though don’t tell rural Nevada that. They’d sign the secession paperwork themselves if given a chance.
Their mayor, on the other hand? Half of unincorporated Clark County’s million or so residents probably think they have one and undoubtedly have strong opinions about whomever they think it might be. It’d make a fun poll question.
The good news is that ceremonially and symbolically powerful political figures, like many of Nevada’s mayors, are only powerful as long as we decide to treat them like they’re powerful. If a mayor proves to be an incompetent, clueless, classless, mendacious rube, we can decide to treat them with the same deference, authority and attention due any ordinary city council member — namely, as little as humanly possible — until we get around the replacing them.
Presidents, on the other hand, are a very different story.
Complaining about presidential power is not new, of course. Nearly a century and a half ago, and a full three decades before he himself was elected president, Woodrow Wilson openly advocated replacing our presidential system of government with a parliamentary system because he argued (somewhat ironically, given the amount of executive power he wielded during World War I) that the president was a relatively powerless figurehead selected via dimly understood extra-constitutional procedures.
Since then, things have half-changed. Presidents are still selected via dimly understood procedures, both constitutionally (the Electoral College and, when the infield fly rule is in effect and a designated hitter is on the ballot, the House of Representatives) and extra-constitutionally (superdelegates have, as Hillary Clinton once remarked, no conscience, no empathy). However, every president since Grover Cleveland has issued hundreds of executive orders and every president since Harry Truman has invaded at least one nation without congressional approval.
Ignoring the obvious institutional power of the modern presidency, however, this year has demonstrated even the ceremonial and symbolic power inherent in the office is a dangerous weapon. Over the past week alone, the washed out reality television star and mediocre businessman selected for president by our part-time Electoral College appointed a Supreme Court justice, publicly issued orders to a white supremacist group, launched a conversation about the finer points of tax avoidance (as Michele Fiore can also attest, hiring children as consultants is a time honored method of confusing law enforcement), and oh yes, became the highest profile victim of COVID-19 on the planet.
Nobody — not Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, not any other person on the planet — should be this important. Not one.
The presidency is a single point of failure in the American system. That we currently have a failure serving in that office (may he and his family recover swiftly and completely from their illness) is beside the point. Trump has merely successfully demonstrated what many of us have long suspected — when you create a position which attracts that much power and attention into the hands of one person, it’s only a matter of time before the sort of person attracted to such power and attention ends up in the position.
If we don’t want another Trump-like figure to become our president, the solution is obvious. Either we make the presidency a position we never have to pay attention to again — or we get rid of the office entirely.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].