No Laughing Matter: The Palin Doctrine of Presidential Power

burning-constitution2Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s recent statement that she looks forward to being elected vice president so she can be “in charge of the senate” has mostly generated laughter rather than outrage.

 Palin was asked by Colorado third-grader Brandon Garcia “What does the vice president do?”

She responded: “A vice president has a really great job because not only are they there to support the president’s agenda, they’re there like the team member, the teammate to the president. But also, they’re in charge of the United States Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom. And it’s a great job and I look forward to having that job.”

I first saw a clip of Palin’s answer on Keith Olbermann’s show on MSNBC, where his take on Palin’s view of the vice presidential power was to assume that she is ignorant of the far more limited legislative role of the vice president, as defined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution: “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.” 


Olbermann said “So the vice president is not in charge of jack, Governor, let alone in charge of the senate, and you are not as smart as a third-grader.”

I don’t think that ignorance explains Palin’s answer.

Instead, I think that there is quite a bit of method to Palin’s madness.

This is the second time that Palin has referenced the Dick Cheney-John Yoo conception of expansive executive power.

As I noted in a blog post on Palin’s stunning articulation of expansive executive power in the vice presidential debate with Joe Biden – where she said that the Constitution provides “flexibility” in vice president’s role, including the power “not only to preside over the Senate” but also to exercise “more authority . . . if [the] vice president so chose to exert it” — Palin’s interpretation of the powers of the vice president is not the laughable  product of ignorance of the Constitution. 

Rather, Palin demonstrated that she has consciously and very specifically adopted the Dick Cheney-John Yoo theory of an Imperial Executive with absolute power outside the Constitutional system of checks and balances. 

As I said in my earlier post, Gwen Ifill’s question regarding the power of the vice president was “one of the very few questions that Palin has answered where one could come to the conclusion that she has thought about this before.”

Much as we love to laugh at Sarah Palin, this is no laughing matter.


Clearly, Palin is not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to the intellectual rationales behind public policy and political theory.

How is it, then, that the often painfully ignorant Sarah Palin is so conversant with a very particular, and relatively obscure, interpretation of the Constitution’s framework regarding the nature of executive power?

I do not know the answer to that question, but I am coming to believe that it might well explain why John McCain ended up picking Palin to be his running mate.

Is it possible that, far from being a completely off-the-wall choice, Palin was picked precisely because she is an adherent to the Cheney-Yoo view of expansive and unchecked executive power, and is willing to implement this view when in office?

Given McCain’s age and health, one could spin a conspiracy theory that it is Sarah Palin, rather than John McCain, who the McCain campaign believes will actually be the president if their ticket wins, and that their plan is to exercise unlimited and illimitable executive power.

Not funny.

Not funny at all.


6 responses to “No Laughing Matter: The Palin Doctrine of Presidential Power

  1. I agree. I’ve written a blog post along similar lines, though I’ve focused on finding other conservatives who are promoting this idea – to move the discussion away from Palin to the concept itself.

    Also, I think I have an idea of how conservatives envision this might be legally done. Here’s the link:

    My email addy is public on my dkos user description page. Feel free to shoot me a note if interested.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I have read your Daily Kos piece and I strongly recommend it.

  3. Fox, see this article:


    Where Does the Vice President Belong?

    Published: October 27, 2008

    THE presidential campaign has taken a detour into a dispute over the constitutional status of the vice presidency. It all started when Sarah Palin asserted in her debate with Joe Biden that the vice president should play an important role in the legislative branch.

    Ms. Palin has been roundly mocked for her claim. But she was probably right.

    Article I of the Constitution, which describes the authority of the legislative branch, says that “the vice president of the United States shall be president of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.” Aside from the job of replacing a president who dies or is unable to serve, the only vice presidential duties that are spelled out in the Constitution are legislative in character.

    But if the vice president is a legislative official, then the exercise of executive power by the vice president raises important constitutional questions related to the separation of powers. The Supreme Court has held on more than one occasion that legislative officials cannot exercise executive power. The Court would likely dub this a “political question” that is beyond its purview, but Congress is empowered to remedy this sort of thing by legislation.

    And Congress should do just that: pass a law to prohibit the vice president from exercising executive power. Extensive vice presidential involvement in the executive branch — the role enjoyed by Dick Cheney and Al Gore — is not only unconstitutional, but also a bad idea.

    The most important function of a vice president is to serve as a spare president. Using the spare president in the ordinary course of business is as unwise as driving on one’s spare tire. Spares should be kept pristine, for when they are really needed.

    If the president resigns or is removed from office, a vice president who has been involved in the activities of the executive branch is also likely to be at risk for impeachment. Just as important, a vice president who is enmeshed in the affairs of the president cannot offer a fresh start for the executive branch.

    The joke may turn out to be on Mr. Biden, who upbraided Ms. Palin for her reading of the Constitution. Presumably Mr. Biden thinks Barack Obama chose him for the same reason that George W. Bush chose Mr. Cheney, as a way of making up for a lack of experience in foreign affairs. Mr. Bush’s choice led him to rely on Mr. Cheney in ways that were unprecedented — and unconstitutional.

    Let’s hope Mr. Obama disappoints Mr. Biden. The Constitution and the best interests of the country suggest that the best place for the vice president is in the Senate.

    Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee.

  4. I find Professor Reynolds’ article wholly unconvincing.

    Reynolds has positioned himself in the legal and journalistic world as a conservative (libertarian) gadfly and crank. Notice that he makes no Constitutional argument whatsoever to support his claim that the vice president is part of the legislative branch. Instead, he points to Cheney’s conduct as vice president as evidence that the vice president should not take part in the executive branch. But Cheney’s conduct in usurping presidential authority does not convert the vice president into a legislator.

    The Constitution evisions the vice president as a possible immediate replacement for the president, and as the ceremonial chair and tie-breaker in the Senate, nothing more.

    Whether the president can delegate presidential executive power to the vice president is a separate Constitutional question, and whether the president should do so is a separate political question.

  5. I didn’t post that Times opinion piece to convince you of the author’s arguments. I simply wanted to point out that there are yet more conservative legal scholars who are promoting this theory of the Vice President taking over presiding powers of the Senate from the Majority Leader.

    This is an issue that will resurface in the media once “conservatives” regain executive power. Though I hesitate to call people who would undo two hundred years of senate tradition over a short-term power struggle “conservatives”.

  6. Thanks, jmaynardg, for the clarification.

    And I agree that we have not yet heard the last of the Palin-Cheney et al theory of executive power.

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