Given foreseeable gridlock, how important is a candidate’s policy agenda?

The relatively sober observer of politics has to notice that there will be gridlock—especially with regard to the major issues—for the foreseeable future. But, each candidate has a detailed legislative agenda of which he or she is unlikely to accomplish much even with some good fortune. At the very least, a D president isn’t going to convince the R’s in the House, and an R president isn’t going to convince the D’s in the Senate.

It seems that we have to conclude that having a legislative agenda is merely a formality, a sort of sine qua non without which someone could not run for the office. But can the gridlock be overcome?

Historical Examples where the Legislative Agenda was Achieved

Three possibilities come to mind. There is 2009-2010 which had the coincidence of majorities for the same party in the House and the Senate (large enough to override a filibuster) with the President. Even so, this situation is not likely to happen again any time soon and certainly shouldn’t be counted on.

Then there is the Reagan model, where he apparently accomplished much of his legislative agenda in spite of opposition control of the House. But, this seems to be the result of Reagan’s electoral victories being considerable landslides, and even if there were such landslides again, it is difficult to imagine the D’s acquiescing to something like a border wall or the R’s to single-payer health care.

Finally, there is the Clinton model of meeting in the middle, but it is not clear that such notable compromises as welfare reform were part of Clinton’s campaign agenda. Also, it seems that the only middle that is going to be agreed upon is that the government should operate.

Some Context for the Legislative Agenda

So, in what context should we view a candidate’s legislative agenda if we know it is extremely unlikely that much of it will be achieved? Well, the agenda represents a candidate’s goals, and goals explain much of why anyone does anything—whether or not the goals are achieved. So here, the question is whether we believe that someone is honestly expressing their goals or is taking advantage of the lack of public knowledge that any candidate’s legislative agenda is not really going to be achieved.

There is also the aspect that the fact that someone is unlikely to accomplish much of their legislative agenda is not widely factored in to people’s decisions about which candidate to support, so the agenda effects electability. Among other factors, someone is more or less electable because of their positions about things that they will not be able to accomplish even in the best of circumstances. It is a purpose of this writing to suggest that people not put so much emphasis on a candidate’s legislative agenda.

The Candidate’s Executive Agenda

But a candidate is not only his legislative agenda. In fact, since the Presidency consists in a single person running a branch of government, it is quite influenced by that person’s conception of the office. The President has considerable power to direct the operations of the Executive Branch through Executive Orders and Actions, but only within the limits of established law. The distinction is labyrinthine, and is shrouded by endless debate. Mystery or not, a candidate necessarily has a position about it—even if this issue is never really dwelt on in the campaign—and this is where the rubber of the distinctions between the candidates really hits the road.

Presently, it seems that there are two positions, one of which someone leans toward to some degree. There is the pen and a phone view, which vows to achieve as much of a President’s legislative agenda through executive power as is possible. Opposed to this is the acknowledgement of separation of powers, where the power to legislate is left with Congress where the Constitution put it. This, of course, is the same mysterious distinction that we noticed earlier, and it can only become more clear by a discussion of particular examples, which I will defer until later for the sake of brevity.

People are correct to mention the importance of selecting Supreme Court justices. But it seems a lot more clear that D’s would be able to actually get a nominee through the Senate, or at least that a candidate acceptable to the D’s would be able to get passed, than someone that doesn’t have an activist view of the Court. The question, as often, can be whether Lindsey Graham or Chuck Schumer is more likely to cave.

Finally, there is foreign policy, which the President has almost as much control over as Executive policy. Here, the various views seem to range from so-called dovish to hawkish, but this is not the right occasion to detail the general categories of foreign policy doctrines.


Everything I have said so far has been done in a general way to be applicable whichever type of candidate someone is inclined to support. Most people are so unknowingly myopic about legislative agendas that they don’t even know how to compare the candidates otherwise. In fact, Executive Power is a notoriously difficult subject to discuss, since popular discussion always seems to reduce it to the quantity of executive orders and actions, whereas if the present writing is correct that there can be appropriate and inappropriate executive orders and actions, then the quality is the only issue.

Based on my answers to these considerations, which should in no way affect the general aspect of the considerations here staked out, it seems as though relatively sober reason requires Ted Cruz. Not being open to vote for him or Rubio or voting for a D seems to require something like idealism uber alles, and Cruz is far better than Rubio on immigration—which is greatly influenced by executive power—and also on foreign policy.

But even if someone is deciding between the Bern and Hillary, this writing should still apply. The distinction between them with regard to Executive Power isn’t even clear to me, and I doubt that there is really much difference here.

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