The most powerful country in the world has always liked to see itself as the very incarnation of democracy. My very own country, Argentina, found inspiration for its constitution in the American text. Whenever armed conflict arises somewhere around the world, the United States is ready to intervene in order to ‘deliver democracy’. Yikes, this must certainly be the land of the free! In the realm of governance, USA is the modern Greece.
Now, is it?
At elementary and middle school we learn the rudiments of the democratic system. Later, we go out and (hopefully) vote. Maybe we, the common folk, think we understand how a presidential system works… but we really have no idea. The devil is in the details, and it’s just those – the little things, that technicalities – that provide a power-hungry leader with the tools they need. The Unitary Executive theory is one of those details, and of course they don’t teach it at civic studies…
If there is one thing that most conservatives and liberals agree on, it is that executive power under the Constitution must be “unitary.” Which is not exactly to say that the president’s power is unlimited, or even particularly broad. It does mean that whatever authority the executive has must be controlled by the president. What if you learned that there were no longer three co-equal branches of government, that the Executive Branch now held powers that could not be checked by Congress or the Courts? Under the Unitary Executive theory, the Constitution guarantees the President unlimited power to protect the nation in “times of emergency.”
I know it sounds very technical, so why should we worry about something as intricate that is in fact not illegal? Well, for starters, many awful things have happened in the name of democracy. And nine times out of ten, the unitary executive had something to do with it.
“Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
[Sir Winston Churchill]
In a 2011 documentary produced by the PBS, there is a very enlightening description of some questionable activities former VP Dick Cheney performed in the dark. For about three decades, Cheney conducted a secretive campaign to grant President G. W. Bush virtually unlimited wartime power. In the aftermath of 9/11, the DOJ and the White House made some interesting moves: by decision of both Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, the Justice Department made an expansive interpretation of the executive power. As a result, President Bush was now allowed to detain, interrogate, torture, wiretap and spy any subject suspected of terrorism. And, by “allowed” I mean without congressional approval or judicial review.
I have to admit it, I knew nothing about the Unitary Executive theory before watching Vice. This is the latest film by Adam McKay, whom you may remember from that genius movie about the financial crisis called The Big Short. In Vice, Christian Bale delivers his best performance yet (IMO) – he plays the Cheney himself.
The movie makes a brief reference to the theory in question, but the actual facts it depicts sort of revolve around the Unitary Executive. What follows is a fragment of a very meaningful conversation Cheney and then Governor George W. Bush have before the 2000 presidential campaign. It does not really constitute spoilers, for the movie is based on actual events, but consider yourself warned nevertheless.
Dick Cheney: However, the Vice Presidency is also defined by the President, and if we were to come to a, uh, different understanding…
George W. Bush: Uh-huh. Go on. I’m listening.
Dick Cheney: I sense that, uh, you’re a kinetic leader. You make decisions based on instinct.
George W. Bush: I am. People have said that.
Dick Cheney: Yeah, yeah. Very different, very different from, uh, from your father in that regard. Now, maybe I can handle some of the more mundane jobs, overseeing bureaucracy, managing military, uh, energy, uh, foreign policy.
[they look at each other for a moment]
George W. Bush: That sounds good.
Needless to say, director McKay shares the “master of puppets” theory: the VP was the one in charge during the G.W. Bush administrations. Cheney was the quiet man.
“Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.”
So far we have talked about the events that followed 9/11 during the Bush administration. However, the Unitary Executive theory is still very much in use. Remember that under this premise, the president is free to hire, fire, and issue orders to all other executive branch officials, as he sees it – except in a few cases specifically noted in the Constitution, such as the requirement of Senate confirmation for cabinet officers. Which is exactly what happened a couple months ago, when when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve a bill that would protect special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump. At the time, Counsel Mueller was investigating the president and his associates’ activities. The bill eventually passed, but several GOP senators (including some opposition members) voted “no,” citing constitutional considerations based on unitary executive theory.
And then, just a couple weeks ago, VP Mike Pence took to Twitter and posted this video:
Many say history repeats itself, but I like how Karl Marx puts it – first as tragedy, second as farce. We seem to be past the times of colonialism, but something else is still cooking here.
Democracy prescribes separation and balance of powers – it has since the late eighteenth century. However, in a world where natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, a strong executive branch seems the way to remain on top. Was Dick Cheney truly interested in national security when he made the invasion of Irak possible? Is Mike Pence frankly concerned about the (various) needs of the Venezuelan? I reserve the right to doubt.
But one thing is certainly clear: the vice presidency is no dull job.