Ron DeSantis’ picture of presidential power should terrify you

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He’s campaigning on a legal theory fit for a king.

Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is out for blood, but he needs America to get on board with his authoritarian ideology before he quenches that thirst. That’s why the Harvard-trained lawyer is trying to normalize a view of the presidency that’s rarely discussed outside of think tanks, law schools, or the Situation Room.

The Florida Governor’s embrace of executive-branch supremacy on the campaign trail — for example, through a guarantee to slit “throats” upon entering the White House or last week’s firing of yet another state prosecutor — is no mistake. He wants you to get acclimated to the so-called unitary executive theory in action, making it easier for his hypothetical presidency to prevail against the other branches of government.

The theory is shorthand for a Constitutional interpretation that permits the exercise of unfettered presidential power. In its strongest form, it defies our government’s general scheme of checks and balances.

It provides, for example, the foundation of an argument to let a president fire a prosecutor appointed to investigate them. It is also a keystone in the overarching concept of a broad and unrelenting executive, responsible for hard-to-stomach unilateral presidential actions, including the invasion of Afghanistan, drone strikes, and torture in Guantanamo.

Despite these unsavory associations, the unitary executive is DeSantis’ whole campaign. He’s obsessed with it. It manifests when he promises to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray, an action some would view as executive overreach (a position DeSantis called a “canard” on Fox News). He flashes it when he claims a carte blanche charter to wage his promised war against the administrative state.

And to his credit, he is honest when he says he wants to make America more like Florida, where in the name of a robust executive he has not hesitated in firing independently elected prosecutors, axing Cabinet-member priorities, commandeering his Legislature, and attempting to usher laws through Tallahassee that would have conflicted with the plain text of decades-old Supreme Court precedent regarding the First Amendment.

While he does not refer to the theory by name, DeSantis has offered a much more wieldy promise to be “energetic,” invoking the theory’s architect, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton argued in a seminal installment of The Federalist Papers that the concentration of power in the hands of an “energetic” President was a defining characteristic of the Constitution.

On his campaign website, DeSantis breaks down into bullet points a pledge “to be an energetic executive.” Even before he launched his presidential bid, DeSantis extolled the virtues of Hamilton’s vision for the Oval Office, spontaneously telling reporters: “Read Hamilton on executive authority. He would not have liked parts of the Florida Constitution.”

To be clear, Hamilton’s writings are not by themselves problematic. But the modern application of the writings are cause for concern.

The proliferation of federal agencies in the 20th century, for example, made the federal government unrecognizable to the one envisioned by the Founding Fathers. It also made application of a pure unitary executive theory impractical and out of step with a comprehensive understanding of the Constitution. A more holistic reading would acknowledge the powers granted to the other branches rather than hyper-focusing on the “Vesting” clause from which the unitary executive proceeds.

Even contemporary proponents of a unitary executive have recognized its pragmatic limits. For example, Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, supports the theory generally but has suggested there is little textual support for concentrating modern federal powers in the hands of one person. The federal government, he writes, has expanded beyond the limits of the Constitution anyway. Thus, the solution is not concentrating more power in the presidency but rather taking it back from the federal government altogether.

I expect DeSantis, and other presidential candidates, to have opinions about the Constitution. But it is odd when those opinions are thrust into the fore of a campaign. What I find deeply unsettling is just how self-serving the theory is for a would-be President.

It begs the question: what else is he planning?

“DeSantis is following the playbook of an authoritarian,” suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren suggested to me. “He wants to consolidate power, trample the rights of those he disagrees with, and do anything he can to promote his political agenda.”

Warren is one of many left in the wake of DeSantis’ strong-arm governing philosophy. He holds an elected position but was removed from his seat by DeSantis last year for pledging to refrain from prosecuting people seeking abortions or gender-affirming care. DeSantis last week fired another prosecutor, Monique Worrell, for leniency with respect to certain crimes, or as DeSantis puts it, “woke” policies.

“There’s a basic framework to our government that involves checks and balances, accountability, and the rule of law,” Warren added. “When you have one branch willing to abuse its power and amass more for political reasons, that’s a threat to our democracy.”

In some ways, DeSantis’ understanding of executive power doesn’t surprise me. At the individual level, it jibes with his party-of-one personality. The idea that one person calls all the shots for a country complements the former Congressman, who famously used to roam Capitol Hill with headphones so as not to be disturbed.

A similar combination of heavy-handedness and isolation would define the DeSantis presidency. Thus, for the campaign, that means making America accustomed to it between now and the election. For obvious reasons, I hope that doesn’t happen.

Danny McAuliffe

Danny is a contributor at floridapolitics.com. He is a graduate of Fordham Law School and Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. Reach him at [email protected].


13 comments

  • Tom

    August 14, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    Like they say, when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. Trump is just a buffoon to be ridiculed, Desantis is just plain dangerous.

    • WhatNow

      August 14, 2023 at 3:24 pm

      👍

    • PeterH

      August 14, 2023 at 4:27 pm

      Well said! I hope Americans are paying attention.

  • WhatNow

    August 14, 2023 at 3:22 pm

    So DeSantis is basically a smarter Trump who hasn’t (yet) made a habit of grabbing women’s crotches. Hmm…

  • Tommy Tuberveal

    August 14, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Meanwhile I am working hard I can for power over military appointments and promotions to be taken away from Congress and given to the Executive.

    Nobody is falling for my “pro life” scheme, but I’m going to keep on going with this as long as Trump tells me to.

    Trump will be President and then he’ll appoint the top leaders of all military branches and he’ll be in charge of all military promotions once Congress is stripped of this power due to me, Tommy Tuberveal!

    That’s the plan, at least.

    But you know, football.

    I took a lot of hits to the head.

    I ain’t that bright.

    • The.Truth.Comes.Out.In.The.End

      August 14, 2023 at 5:49 pm

      I pray that this will never happen. May G_D forgive you and protect the people of the USA. ALL of them, not just the ones you want to help.

  • PeterH

    August 14, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Excellent well written article!

  • The.Truth.Comes.Out.In.The.End

    August 14, 2023 at 5:44 pm

    I live in Florida. There is something wrong with this man. When he was elected, I was willing to give him a chance. Then covid came and he brought a Dr. to Florida that I would not send ANYONE to. At that point, DeSantis’s personality changed for the worse. Now, I would not vote him for Dogcatcher. He should NOT be in public service. He only believes in himself and DOES NOT represent the people of Florida. We do not need or want him in the White House!

    • JD

      August 14, 2023 at 6:07 pm

      This is exactly how I feel and I followed the same actions. I gave the guy a chance and he went full on crazy.

      He is NOT A PUBLIC SERVANT and I am damn tired of politicians not being such. Get the F*ck out of the public service and go get a lobbyist job you assh0les.

      For the people. By the people.

  • Mercy Price

    August 15, 2023 at 8:05 am

    Anyone/anything is better than Andrew Gilliam so there’s that.
    I can’t fathom a Soros friendly Democrat during COVID. It would have lasted 2-3 years. Just look at your Democrat friends who still wear masks and rub their hands w glee at the prospect of getting another booster. We’d all be force jabbed, kids even more messed up, sick elderly parents forced into COVID filled nursing homes to die, jobs and small businesses lost at a rate we can’t imagine. Instead we could CHOOSE.
    Remember when Florida was purple? Then the legislature built in rules and did away w old voter rolls and low and behold, Florida wasn’t even MILDLY purple. We’re we living another leftist lie?
    So glad I left the misery and hyperbolic nature of the leftist mentality. Just read the comments. It’s like a parody.

    • Mercy Price

      August 15, 2023 at 8:06 am

      *Gillum

  • Dorine

    August 15, 2023 at 5:31 pm

    These complaints would be valid if you were also including in the Biden Administrations’ ’embrace of executive-branch supremacy on the campaign trail”. Enough said.

  • L'Carpetron Dookmarriott

    August 16, 2023 at 5:46 pm

    Sounds based, can’t wait to vote for him next year.

Comments are closed.


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