Presidential candidates, like street-corner organ grinders of old, put out tin cups and crank out promises created to please the audience. This time around, many have impressive goals for their first day in office. Bernie Sanders would act to reverse the decline of the middle class on his first day. Ted Cruz has pledged to abolish the IRS, investigate Planned Parenthood, undo the multi-nation deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program, abolish Common Core education standards and reverse every one of President Obama's long list of executive orders.
None of those things can or will happen, but then the promise is music to some ears. At least since President Harry Truman used an executive order to desegregate the military, scholars and politicians alike have questioned how far a president can go to circumvent Congress with a presidential edict. The limits remain unclear.
For three election cycles, political reporter Charlie Savage, now of the New York Times, has asked presidential candidates to answer a short list of questions geared to gauge their view of presidential authority. This time, Savage explained in a Times article on Sunday, only one candidate, Republican Rand Paul, answered them.
Presidents Obama and George W. Bush issued executive orders and memoranda in roughly equal amounts, and faced similar challenges to their constitutionality and cries of "imperial presidency." Executive orders, in use since George Washington, allow a president to act quickly, particularly in times of danger, without first gaining congressional approval. Their use, however, has increased with congressional paralysis, which has become a political fact of life that's not likely to change with the next election. So it could be that the candidates didn't answer because they didn't want to limit their powers needlessly or because the question has yet to be answered definitively by anyone.
Several candidates, including Trump and lawyers Cruz and Marco Rubio, appear to have views on the extent of presidential power that, with less than a dozen days to go before the primary, voters should think about.
President Richard Nixon once summed up his take on the matter by saying "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal." That proved not to be the case. Dick Cheney, the former vice president and perhaps the nation's most steadfast proponent of almost unchecked presidential power, once put it this way when asked about limits:
"The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world's never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in."
That's not a view of executive authority that makes us feel safer, but it does make us wonder how many of today's candidates feel the same way.