Democrats should demand Executive Action

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Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton ignited a burst of acclaim among liberal supporters Thursday with a dramatic call for voter registration reform.

“Every young man or young woman should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18,” she said, adding that states should also offer at least 20 days of early in-person voting.

The proposal is being hailed by liberals as “a huge reform” (Ari Berman), a “big big move” (Greg Sargent), and a “major step” (Andrew Prokop). Not only would it instantly remove a major obstacle to voting for around 50 million Americans by adding them to the rolls — it would also shift the balance of likely voters to the considerable advantage of Democrats. Americans in general are significantly more progressive than our subset of likely voters.

But there’s just one problem with all of this, as Prokop notes: “she doesn’t propose a specific way to make this happen.”

That caveat points to a much larger problem that Democratic voters have yet to engage with: Republicans are going to control Congress for a long, long time. Democrats should expect their presidential candidates to acknowledge this reality. And that means running on a radically different platform centered around the prospects of executive action.

As far as I can tell, the odds of Clinton getting any kind of meaningful voting reform bill are approximately zero. One might as well ask the GOP to voluntarily disband. No amount of speechifying behind the bully pulpit or clever horse trading is going to convince a Republican Congressman to voluntarily flood his district with Democratic voters; it just doesn’t make sense.

So unless Clinton has a plan to finesse Congress altogether, her proposal is useless. Worse than useless, because it actively misrepresents what a modern Democratic presidency is capable of, and leaves voters in the dark about the candidate’s actual agenda. It decisively severs the already gossamer thread-thin link between a candidate’s platform and what we can actually expect to happen, devolving democratic campaigns into a completely empty exercise in marketing.

The crucial difference with executive action: it’s actually possible. The attempt, at least, can be absolutely guaranteed. And the potential is enormous: consider the executive’s considerable discretion over matters of enforcement, her power to pardon, her control of military affairs and foreign policy, and so on.

In fact, the potential is so enormous that it could conceivably restore some institutional balance to the government. Congress would have a growing stake in negotiating legislation with the President, lacking any other check on her executive powers. We’ve already seen hints of this dynamic in Obama’s approach to immigration, or less plausibly in the debt ceiling crisis’s “trillion dollar coin” scenario.

But all of this starts with the campaigns. The Democratic party’s left flank should advance an ambitious, aggressive executive agenda and insist that candidates take a position on their proposals, with the expectation that implementation will begin on their very first day in office. And we should stop taking seriously any promises that depend on passing legislation.