The Age of Unilateral Rule

Rich Lowry in The Age of Unilateral Rule

The beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency has been an extension of the past six years of the Obama administration, when Capitol Hill was largely a sideshow to the main event in the executive branch in general and the Oval Office in particular. Barack Obama and Donald Trump have almost nothing in common, except their modes of governance.

Obama was coolly cerebral and deliberative to a fault, whereas Trump is blustery, instinctual and impulsive. Yet, Obama and Trump are both, in their own ways, attention-hungry celebrities. Obama never demonstrated the patience or aptitude for real persuasion, whether LBJ-style arm-twisting or Reagan-style move-the-needle public argument. Neither has Trump. Institutionally, Obama was content to be a loner, and so is Trump.

Until further notice, this is the American model — government by and of the president. We live in the age of unilateral rule…

To his credit, Trump hasn’t pushed the constitutional envelope the way Obama did with his Clean Power Plan and his executive amnesty (both blocked in the courts) or tried anything as audacious as having midlevel bureaucrats write letters mandating sexual-assault and bathroom policies for colleges and schools nationwide.

What Trump has done is firmly within bounds and largely defensive in nature. He has either reversed Obama’s unilateral actions or used executive orders as symbolic measures to highlight certain issues.

Still, the yin and yang from Obama to Trump means that American government has become a badminton match between rival presidents with dueling executive actions

All of this back-and-forth means that our laws are mostly contested in the realm of executive decisions, agency rule-making and the courts. Arguably, in striking down Trump’s travel ban on highly dubious grounds, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has done more legislating this year than the United States Congress.

If Trump’s unilateral rule is an extension of what has come before, it is also an intensification.

First, there’s the timing. Ordinarily, a president loses Congress or otherwise stalls several years into his tenure and has to look to foreign affairs and executive orders for victories. Trump is already dependent on presidential unilateralism, even though his party controls both houses of Congress.

It’s not that Trump is deliberately cutting out Congress; he is desperate for it to get things done, as demonstrated by his event celebrating passage of the House health care bill, which currently languishes in the Senate. He just doesn’t have the interest or knowledge base to push anything along in Congress

The legislative branch has been kneecapping itself for decades. It has been steadily handing over authority to the administrative state, and lately has gotten out of the habit of passing almost anything except last-minute omnibus spending bills. The Senate, in particular, is debilitated by a near-automatic 60-vote threshold…

Second, there is the continued centralization of power in the White House. This has been the trend from Richard Nixon through Obama. But Trump has taken it to another level; he operates on a hub-and-spoke system, with a small group of loyalists and family members jostling for influence around him…

In the mid-1980s, the late political scientist Ted Lowi wrote a book called The Personal President. It warned of the effects of a “plebiscitary” presidency unhinged from Congress and political parties. He was onto something, although Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in subsequent decades governed fairly traditionally. It is with Obama and Trump that we have moved into a new gear.

No matter what the written rules are, any system of government is susceptible to change through habits and precedent. We may be witnessing the creation of a new norm, one that hollows out the branch of government charged with writing the nation’s laws.

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