Political Heavyweights Debate Presidential Power

In a political season marked by gridlock and diatribe, Regent University's 11th Annual Clash of the Titans® struck a more collegial chord as political heavyweights from both sides of the aisle squared off over the topic of Presidential Power: Has the Executive Branch Gone Too Far? At the event on Friday, Oct. 25, the speakers staked out strong and often opposing positions, yet also managed to find common ground on what unites Americans.

Nearly 800 people turned out to hear the esteemed panel of political heavyweights: David Axelrod, former Obama senior strategist; David Plouffe, former Obama senior adviser; Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker; and Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary and FOX News co-anchor, moderated the debate.

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The speakers' opening remarks set the stage for the rousing 90-minute dialogue. Gingrich began, providing a brief lesson in the Constitution and the role of the executive branch.

"The presidency is, in fact, second in the line of power outlined in the Constitution. The founding fathers wanted to avoid a dictatorship, so they invented a machine so inefficient that no dictator could rule it," he said, drawing laughter from the audience. "We've decided to cut through the baloney and go straight to the top, the president. If we centralize, we can make decisions faster. But centralizing power is useful once, and then it becomes a problem. It's a short-term solution."

Axelrod noted that the issue of presidential power is not a recent development, as it has been expanding over time due to an increasingly complex society. He expressed a differing opinion of the issue.

"Over time, what has really changed is not the level of power the executive branch has, but the role of Congress," he said, citing "aggressive use" of the filibuster in the Senate and the Hastert Rule in the House of Representatives, which prevents something from getting to the floor for debate. "This has been a development that has made government less workable."

Plouffe echoed the sentiment about Congress. "A gridlocked Congress puts a lot of pressure on the Executive Branch." He also raised the issue of presidential appointments made during Congressional recess. "Recesses have now become like a filibuster in opposition for either party. Democrats did this to Bush, Republicans did it to Obama, and this raises big questions. So much of it does come back to the dysfunction in Washington."

With a direct answer to the debate question about the executive branch going too far, Sekulow answered a firm "yes." "I think you can challenge the policies of the president and still have respect for the office of the president. But the president doesn't get a pass. The president is not a monarch, it's an elected office. You don't get to hold on to it, and you have to be very careful about what you do with that power while you have it."

The debate took off in earnest as Perino asked the first question, regarding whether there's a problem with inconsistency in applying presidential power. The speakers responded and began firing questions at each other in a spirited contest that delved into the president's handling of recent events including the IRS scandal, Syria, the government shutdown and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act website.

After considerable back and forth, Perino posed several questions provided by audience members, including Regent students. One question about whether expanded presidential power signals weakness in civic power generated responses that showed a commonality of thought among the debaters as they discussed the involvement of citizens, especially young people.

"This is a remarkable generation. I think this generation is going to do remarkable things," said Plouffe. "We still see these younger generations wanting to be engaged, wanting to be involved."

Gingrich noted, "The country's at the edge of another surge of movement that will drive us forward....The system isn't working, so I think young people will get involved."

Another question that provoked strong reactions involved the lack of anyone putting forth ideas to solve problems.

"I think the absence of ideas on both sides is stunning," said Gingrich. "You have no party of ideas to get us into a new world. The news media and the bureaucrats are almost impervious and it's a major problem for both parties."

Axelrod was also blunt in his response. "I've found that you have some very courageous people who are in Washington because they want to make a difference and others who are principally concerned with keeping their jobs. This inspires asking what they need to do to stay in office. That's a corrosive thing, but some of the responsibility relies on voters to ask for something more of their government."

In their closing remarks, the speakers all shared a refreshing sense of optimism.

"If you strip away all of the gridlock, the truth is that there's a lot more that unites us than divides us," Plouffe concluded. "What the American people want is leadership. Eventually, we will get this right and we will make progress. If you're unhappy, organize and defeat. Stick your neck out there and seize the moment to do the right thing for our country."

Sekulow shared the story of his grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, hoping for a better life for his family. "We don't have a country to flee to. This is our country and we're blessed to be here. Divine providence plays a role in this country. We've been given an opportunity and we can't squander it and we can't surrender it. We have to be willing to fight for it. Will we be intimidated into silence or will we take that divine opportunity?"

Picking up on his theme from earlier, Gingrich said, "I believe what we'll see is the empowerment of the American people. It is very important for people who care about this country to study the Constitution and take seriously the magic that became America. We have a structure that allows anyone from anywhere on the planet to come have a good life. Protecting that is the great challenge of our nation."

After joking that Sekulow stole his story, Axelrod, whose father came to America as a young boy, shared that he finds hearing the U.S. national anthem being played on foreign soil his most moving experience.

"I celebrate this country. I have a responsibility to keep this country strong, and even though we have different views, it's important to find that common ground."

Since its inception in 2003, Regent University's Clash of the Titans® has been recognized as one of the biggest public events of its kind in Virginia, a must-attend venue, given the impressive roster of panelists who have battled and debated pressing issues in a robust, free-wheeling forum. Learn more about Regent University's Clash of the Titans.

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