Magazine | December 7, 2015, Issue

Questions for the Candidates

What the nominee should have to commit to

Republicans should ask more from their presidential candidates.

That assertion runs counter to a common theme of political coverage, which is that the party’s base demands that the candidates run so far to the right that they cannot win the general election. But that’s not a plausible explanation of why John McCain and Mitt Romney lost. (Even if you accept the ideas that the primaries forced Romney to tell illegal immigrants to “self-deport” and that this statement hurt him with Hispanics, it wasn’t his poor showing with Hispanics that cost him the election.)

And conservative voters have not actually asked Republican candidates to make many specific commitments. To a large extent, they approach the presidential primaries by asking which candidates are conservatives rather than by asking what conservative things they would attempt to do as president. These are related questions, but looking at the first in isolation from the second amounts to looking for badges of tribal identification.

There are obvious exceptions. Primary voters want the candidates to reflect them in being broadly pro-life, anti-tax, and pro-defense. Americans for Tax Reform asks candidates to pledge to voters that they will not raise taxes (a pledge that Republicans can take without losing any votes). Free-market groups have made the Export-Import Bank a litmus test, with the result that most of the presidential candidates say they would not support its renewal.

Some of the questions conservatives should ask are relatively open-ended. They should demand that their candidates explain how they would replace Obamacare, for example, though the candidates could reasonably provide different answers. There are a lot of moving parts to health policy. (Most of the candidates, to their discredit, have not yet given a detailed answer about Obamacare’s replacement.) A candidate ought to tell us how he intends to reform the tax code and entitlements, too. Consider that the essay-test portion of the primaries.

But there are also some yes-or-no questions conservatives should ask, some simple and specific commitments they ought to press the candidates to make.

Would you impose the “Reagan rule” on Title X? Federal law prohibits family-planning funding from paying for abortion. The Reagan administration, in its last year, interpreted that law to mean that funds should not go to organizations that perform abortions. The Supreme Court later ruled that the administration was within its legal rights to follow that interpretation. Bill Clinton lifted the rule after he took office, and it has never been reinstated. Most Republican presidential candidates have said that they would seek legislation to cut Planned Parenthood off from federal funding. The Reagan precedent shows that presidents have freedom of action in this area even without new legislation. Jeb Bush proposed to reinstate the Reagan rule during one of the presidential debates. Conservatives should ask the other candidates whether they would, too.

Would you let states cut off Medicaid funds to abortionists? The Medicaid statute says that to keep federal funding, states must allow recipients to get services from any qualified provider. States are, however, allowed to set qualifications. Indiana sought to set its qualifications so as to keep Planned Parenthood from getting Medicaid funds. The Obama administration said no. A Republican president should say yes and seek legislation that says no federal money (from any program, whether Medicaid or Title X) will go to groups that perform abortions.

Would you put an end to President Obama’s lawless policy of granting quasi-legal status to millions of illegal immigrants? After saying repeatedly and correctly that he had no authority to grant legal status to illegal immigrants without congressional authorization, Obama essentially did just that on a purportedly temporary basis. His policy has been tied up in court, and some illegal immigrants covered by the president’s policies (including some who came here as minors) will have their protected status expire during the next administration. The next president should pledge not to renew that status without congressional approval. Even candidates who are sympathetic to the case for granting legal status to many of the affected people — such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio — should say that they want it done the right way, through legislation.

Would you sign the First Amendment Defense Act if it were presented to you? Senator Mike Lee has introduced a bill to stop the federal government from taking any action against someone for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (or that sexual activity is properly reserved to such a marriage). The Republican candidates all say they oppose same-sex marriage and support religious liberty; declaring their support for this legislation is a way to show they mean it — and to block the federal government from treating opposition to same-sex marriage as equivalent to segregationism.

Would you sign the Regulatory Accountability Act if given the chance? As a result of executive orders that date to the Reagan administration, executive agencies have to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulations. Conservatives in Congress want to put that requirement in law, extend it to the independent agencies those orders do not cover, and subject regulations to more judicial review. If the candidates aren’t willing to make this pledge, it would be worth knowing it and hearing what possible reason they could give.

Would you withdraw guidance documents from the Obama administration that encourage colleges and universities to adopt speech codes and to lower standards of proof for allegations of sexual misconduct? The Education Department has repeatedly used such guidance as a form of regulation — a form of regulation that dispenses with notice-and-comment procedures and attempts to dispense with judicial review as well. (It also dispenses with the need to pass new laws.) Through this process, Title IX, by which Congress forbade sex discrimination by federally funded institutions of higher education, has become a powerful engine of political correctness on campus. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has told colleges that they should treat “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal” conduct, as harassment, even if “an objectively reasonable person” would not be offended. It has also told colleges that they should take action against people accused of misconduct even if the evidence in their cases is not “clear and convincing.” And it has told them they may let accusers appeal decisions without letting the accused do so. Conservative politicians cannot put an end to all the nuttiness of the contemporary campus, and they should not try; but they can at least get the government out of the business of mandating much of it.

Would you withdraw the Obama Education Department’s guidance for school districts about their discipline policies? The department has used the same guidance-letter method to get school systems to alter their disciplinary policies. Specifically, it has warned schools not to follow policies that result in black and Hispanic students’ being disciplined more frequently than other students — even if those students are misbehaving more than the others, and even if the chief beneficiaries of the current discipline standards are well-behaved black and Hispanic students. The department is basing its rules on a law that the Supreme Court has suggested is aimed at actions with a discriminatory intent, not actions that have a disparate impact on different racial groups. Conservatives should ask GOP candidates whether their administrations will be in the business of encouraging racial quotas in public schools’ detentions, suspensions, and the like.

Would you end President Obama’s policy of funding stem-cell research that destroys human embryos? Budgets adopted since 1996 have prohibited federal funding from going to research “in which a human embryo is destroyed.” President Obama has nonetheless authorized funding for research on stem cells derived from the destruction of human embryos. This was in keeping with a Democratic campaign during the George W. Bush administration according to which restrictions on funding were preventing cures to many terrible and widespread diseases. Such claims were always wildly exaggerated, and science has developed in a different direction since the controversy began. Without destroying embryos, it is now possible to create stem cells that have the characteristics researchers have sought. The next president thus has an opportunity to uphold the sanctity of life without sacrificing scientific progress — by reversing Obama’s policy.

Some of these pledges, if carried out, would involve signing laws, and others would require the use of well-established presidential powers. Several of them would undo executive actions that go beyond the president’s traditional prerogatives. The Obama years have seen an accelerating deterioration of constitutional governance: unilateral policymaking by the president in areas where presidents had not been previously thought to have a free hand; executive-branch rule-making designed to force compliance while evading accountability. The next Republican president could try to exploit these developments or try to reverse them. The right choice is not inevitable. Which is why conservatives should ask for and get these commitments now.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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