The Revolving Door Project’s Debate (& Campaign) Watch Guide

It’s finally no longer too early to begin to follow the 2020 primary campaign in earnest!

As longtime followers of the Revolving Door Project know, the core animating principle of our work is that executive branch personnel matters. A lot.

Like us, we expect you will be watching next week’s presidential debates. When you do so, we encourage you to watch as we will -- with an eye toward assessing how each potential president would actually do the most important thing a president does, which is to build a team to run the federal government.

We believe that the role of the president in legislation -- especially non-budgetary -- receives a disproportionately great degree of focus from activists, voters, and the media. But that doesn’t mean presidents are overrated. Rather, how a president runs the necessarily vast executive branch is of massive concern to all Americans (and, indeed, the entire planet).

What does the executive branch do? Well, for one thing it ran foreign policy with minimal interference even in eras when Congress was, unlike now, relatively strong. Domestically, the executive branch implements laws via regulation -- everything from the cleanliness of the water we drink and safety of the places we work, to the stability of our banks is in no small part the product of how laws like the Clean Water Act and Dodd-Frank are implemented.

The president’s team also sets enforcement priorities -- from whether corporate Goliaths can acquire new companies (or bully existing ones) to whether or not the government will prosecute white collar criminal cases against corrupt bankers. From the SEC to the CPSC and from OSHA to the USDA, there are massive amounts at stake depending on the priorities of a president’s top appointees.

The executive matters for all of this and so much more, both because Congress is too weak and too indifferent to monitor its actions and because, inevitably, modernity is complex, the United States is vast, and the president’s constitutional authority to “take care” to execute laws is considerable.

But “running” the executive branch is an incredibly complex and thoroughly diffuse endeavor. Outside of Saturday Night Live parodies of Ronald Reagan, the president doesn’t really meaningfully govern the executive branch “themselves.” A Reagan-era slogan captures how the executive branch is actually run: “Personnel is policy.”

That means that the president’s broad powers will be wielded by thousands of political appointees. The president will choose those political appointees both directly and indirectly via a personnel process that gives them enormous discretion -- unlike, for example, legislation.

That means a president can be held much more directly responsible for their personnel picks and executive actions and inaction than for the legislation they sign or veto. Or, for that matter, the bills which never come to their desk despite a president’s preferences because Congress is its own complex beast.

So rather than watch these debates with an eye toward how the candidates would serve as the head of a cohesive majority as Prime Minister in a parliamentary system, watch for hints of how they might staff the executive branch in 2021.

Can you actually get that from following campaigning in 2019? We believe you can get a lot of critical hints from debates, how a candidates discusses (or ignores) policy, and with whom the candidate associates themselves.

Here are some useful rubrics:

  1. Does the candidate, during the debate or in laying out their agenda on the web, reference the importance of personnel, recognize the importance of regulatory priorities? This is a simple yet powerful means to distinguish candidates.

  2. Similarly, does the candidate discuss enforcement priorities? Mention specific departments and agencies of the federal government when discussing policy? Such mentions are a low bar -- but it’s a bar candidates often fail to clear.

  3. Is the candidate receiving significant funding from sectors of the economy they directly or implicitly suggest their regulators would rein in? For example, if the candidate decries Facebook’s excesses, inquire whether they are receiving significant funding from prominent Facebook executives.

  4. Has the candidate surrounded themselves with a policy and campaign apparatus that appears conducive to carrying out in governance the promises the candidate makes in campaigning? For instance, if corporate lobbyists or Wall Street executives are known to be playing key roles in a campaign (e.g., “policy advisor” or bundler), some skepticism that the candidate will reform lobbying, rein in the lobbyist’s paymasters, or regulate Wall Street is in order.

So before or after these debates, please consider Revolving Door Project a resource on these questions and more.  We have begun digging deeper into the corporate influencers most active in currying favor with potential presidential candidates as well as thinking through what a progressive agenda for the executive branch would look like.

And here are a few articles we have written thus far on the Democratic primary -- expect much more content on this topic in the months to follow!

Opinion: Mayor Pete Is More Jimmy Carter Than Barack Obama

‘Middle Class Joe’ Biden Courts Wall Street Oligarch, BlackRock’s Larry Fink

Opinion: Point -- Warren’s American plan to rein in tech monopolists (syndicated)