Before computer programming, there was a genre of children's books where you pick from a list of options and go to a certain page to see how your decision turned out. I have no clue if they're still around, but the mind-numbing ignorance of political consequences I see even among a community that's supposed to be full of intelligent, informed people made me think of them - that maybe it would be nice if there was some kind of simulator through which people could try out their ideal scenarios and see how they might stack up against the realities of political office. If I knew how to write computer programs and had the patience for debugging, I would probably try to make an interactive electronic version of the concept, but alas, I don't on either count. But I can at least write a simple text version to (hopefully) show people that real politics doesn't consist of wish-fulfillment and checklists.
In a magical alternate universe that you will soon come to realize is a nightmare, you have just been elected President of the United States. We will give you the best possible starting position: Assume you didn't have to make any promises to anyone to get elected, and haven't had to make any compromising associations. Now as you set off on your Adventures in PresidencyTM, your first act will be to sign an Executive Order. Choose from the list of options in the quote box below, and then skip to the corresponding consequence-number.
Choices 1Consequences 1
1. Sign an Executive Order.
(a) Directing the Justice Department to investigate your predecessors of the opposite party.
(b) Directing the Justice Department to investigate the CIA, DOD, FBI, and State Department career services for various and sundry crimes known to have been committed under your predecessor.
(c) Firing career members of the CIA, DOD, FBI, and State Department services you suspect to have been participants in crimes under your predecessor.
(d) Pardoning all prison inmates with no violent histories incarcerated for low-level drug crimes.
(e) Closing all overseas US military bases.
(f) Ordering the intelligence community not to gather information in violation of the laws of any nation.
(g) Relinquishing your own salary to charity in perpetuity.
(h) Directing the federal government to find a job for every American.
(i) Declaring today to be Puppy Day.
a. Scores of US Attorneys, mostly of the opposite party, resign en masse in an unprecedented display of internal government disruption. That is, except for a number who stay on to sabotage the investigations by deliberately violating procedure and due process so evidence can't be used in court against their fellow Republicans. Although your fellow liberals sympathize with what you're doing, the sheer scope of the investigation and the unavoidable fact that it overwhelmingly targets the opposite party, causes them to express concerns about what kind of "dictatorial precedents" you're setting. The press, most of which is owned by the opposite Party, paints you as a mad Nixonian tyrant hell bent on politicizing the Justice Department. Lawsuits are filed all over the nation, injunctions are issued by judges appointed by your predecessor - some of whom are subjects of investigation themselves - and the Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that you don't have the authority to issue such an Executive Order, after a year of wrangling during which right-wing astroturf riots occur and a wave of terrorist attacks by Tea Party groups murder countless innocent people. You are impeached, but acquitted at Senate trial once you assure members of your own party that you won't pursue it further.
b. The investigations drag on for years, with constant sabotage, misplacement of evidence, intimidation of witnesses, lawsuits, planted media stories attacking and undermining everything you're doing, and judicial injunctions by Republican judges. Out of the thousands you investigate, you convict 15 low-level idiots who committed freelance crimes, with the helpful testimony of much bigger villains granted total immunity by fifth columnist attorneys burrowed into the Justice Department from your predecessor's administration. Meanwhile, the CIA, FBI, DOD, and State Department "misplace" intelligence, "forget" to tell you critical information, become accident-prone with diplomatic protocol and constantly make a fool of you in the eyes of other governments and US officials, promiscuously leak secrets (because what are you gonna do, prosecute them? You're already trying.), "expose" scandals they themselves were responsible for but now pin on you, promote foreign disasters and scandals to make you look incompetent and friendless - which you are. When one of them retires, they'll write a tell-all book about what a terrible President you were. When, not if a terrorist attack occurs, they will declare that your "partisan witch hunts" made it impossible for them to do their jobs, at which point you will be impeached, and whether you are removed from office or not depends largely on which Party controls the Senate. If you survive, the left-wing base will decide it must be because you sold them out, and as proof note that the investigations went nowhere.
c. You don't have the legal authority to fire career civil servants in this manner. Your attempt to do so is blocked by the courts, investigated by Congress, and demonized in the press as an attempted "purge." If Congress is controlled by Republicans, you will be impeached and removed from office on abuse of power charges and go down in history as a delusional joke who exceeded his/her authority on the first day in office and got royally smacked down. You may have your defenders on the left, but most will acknowledge you were wrong, and despise you for squandering the political opportunity of your election.
d. The upper-class pearl-clutching media recoils in horror at your radical left-wing social revolutionary agenda and the sudden (imaginary) swarms of bedraggled lowlifes now flooding the streets endangering Mr. and Mrs. America. A handful of the people you release commit subsequent crimes. That handful will become very familiar to the public through constant, 24-hour, 7-day coverage of their crimes right next to your picture. None of the million or so others will be interviewed or their existence even acknowledged. Your upper- and middle-class support evaporates overnight, leaving you with some stronger support in low-income communities, but not much. You have no political capital whatsoever, and Congress laughs at your other initiatives now that they don't want to be associated with you. The left initially applauds your move, but notes with growing frustration and anger that you haven't pardoned (insert '60s radical or bullshit artist with a cult following), and don't seem to be following up your initial pardon with more lasting action because you couldn't convince Congress to pass gas after making such a spectacle of yourself. Those you don't pardon for various technical or PR reasons and their families now hate you. Probably no impeachment, but you'll be out of a job in four years while right-wing law enforcement agencies make it a mission to re-arrest and re-incarcerate everyone you freed.
e. Before a single US soldier can be redeployed home, every foreign government with a US base supporting their local economies loudly protests, hundreds of thousands of jobs both foreign and domestic are reported to be in jeopardy, Congress totally refuses to fund the closures, top military staff nearing retirement resign in protest in an unprecedented display of dissent at the top, and the media declares that the Sun has set on American relevance and portrays you as its undertaker. Meanwhile, deranged PTSD-suffering soldiers fed on talk radio go on rampages against everyone remotely associated with you (for which you are blamed), the stock market tanks, the banks refuse to lend money due to uncertainty, and the economy crashes into the toilet, and the media they own will guarantee that your name and face are plastered next to every bit of negative economic news. Hostile foreign powers smelling blood in the water choose then to act aggressively in their respective spheres of influence, for which you are blamed, possibly resulting in American casualties. You are then faced with reversing yourself and engaging aggressively overseas in response, or else retreating under fire. You will be impeached and removed from office regardless of who runs Congress long before the first base closes, assuming you aren't assassinated first - as likely by foreign governments who like the status quo as domestic elements. If you are assassinated, your name and face will be venerated, but your agenda assiduously erased from history.
f. When they stop laughing, the intelligence community requests time to understand and implement the full implications of your order. If you insist it occur immediately, they just stop gathering intelligence period, all the while promiscuously leaking to the press and complaining to Congress about how you're making it totally impossible to do their jobs. A terrorist attack occurs. Since you're a Democrat, it's obviously your fault. Buh-bye, Mr./Madame Former President. Or maybe you're more reasonable and give them time to implement and interpret. Since there are a number of governments that are just plain enemies of the United States, that means they can't gather intelligence at all in these countries, or have to rely increasingly on second-hand information from other governments who abuse our reliance. A terrorist attack occurs. Since you're a Democrat, it's obviously your fault. You are impeached, but because you didn't try to shatter the system in one melodramatic swoop, there probably isn't the will to remove you from office. Instead, your subordinates just despise and ignore you until you can be thrown out in the next election. Meanwhile the left loathes you as a spineless failure who backed down in the face of opposition from the MIC, or even suspects that you sold them out.
g. Hailed by many as a good, symbolic show of solidarity with America's less-fortunate. But some ordinary people actually take it as an insult, saying things like "Well I'm glad he's so rich that he can afford to reject money, elitist asshole." Or "Gee, thanks, I'm so glad he's doing oh-so-important things like saving the IRS a few seconds instead of helping out my family." Your own side of Congress and the Party's wealthy fundraisers don't like being made to look bad by comparison, so they mentally make a note to fuck you the next chance they get. Part of the left is totally contemptuous of your move, describing it as "patronizing," and noting that you're still riding around in the world's most expensive limousine, living in a giant mansion, and being waited on hand and foot by an army of staff - which they would characterize as a bad thing, even though every one of them has superb healthcare, retirement benefits, and great pay. You made sure of that in the White House budget, but the fact that you haven't yet managed to guarantee the same for everyone in America means you're a snobby asshole who's trying to distract people with meaningless displays.
h. You don't have the legal authority to enforce this order except of the White House and the independent agencies directly overseen by the President, none of which are statutorily established to find people jobs. You can split your Executive Office budget with a "jobs czar" and find jobs for a small percentage of the unemployed, temporarily, if the quality of the jobs doesn't matter, but everyone you don't help remembers what you promised and that you didn't deliver on it - and even those you do help will blame you if their new jobs suck or don't work out. Meanwhile the pearl-clutching classes think you're wasting time and money on some radical social agenda, and the media covers it as if you had turned the White House into a drug rehab clinic. You're despised on one side for something you're not even really doing, and despised on the other for failing to accomplish it. If Congress is in GOP hands, they will make sure to fuck your budget until it's a practical impossibility to offer even token assistance. If Congress is in Democratic hands...they will fuck your budget in order to fund programs that politically benefit them instead of you. If it really does help people, the media will not cover it. The left will only talk about everything it's not doing, and deride it as rank tokenism.
i. Daily Kos headline: President Insults Cat People. Totally not snark. Outraged condemnation of pandering to the privileged class of canine owners over the wide diversity of other pets. Detailed infographic showing how many Republicans own dogs, with breathless speculation that you are already "caving" to them. Republicans, of course, still despise you, so this fact is cited as meaning you're both a sellout and a pathetic masochist.
Now you're going to make a priority decision on what areas of drastic reform legislation to pursue. This will cost an enormous amount of political capital and involve a lot of heavy lifting, lots of time, and tremendous struggle.
Choices 2Consequences 2
2. Pass drastic reform legislation.
(b) Criminal justice reform.
(f) Civil liberties.
(g) Foreign policy.
(k)All of the above.
a. Good for you. Almost no one who isn't a raving sociopath would argue against focusing on healthcare. However, because it's so obvious, you get no political credit for merely making it a priority even though your Republican opponent wouldn't have done so. Proceed to Choices 3.
b. So you care more about criminals than the millions of kids who have no healthcare? WTF is wrong with you? At least, that would be the headline. People suspected or convicted of crimes have rights too, you tell the public, but that's not really on most of the public's minds, and certainly not on the minds of Congress or the media. Seriously, what are you thinking? What do you expect is going to happen?
c. Good for you. Almost no one who isn't a raving sociopath would argue against landmark expansions of the rights of American workers, and most people would be as happy to hear about this being focused on as they would regarding healthcare. There would be right-wing propaganda against it, of course, but this is a matter of central economic importance that would solve a lot of problems at once. However, because it's so obvious, you get no political credit for merely making it a priority even though your Republican opponent would have done the exact opposite. Proceed to Choices 3.
d. Watch yourself instantaneously morph in the media from a hopeful new leader into a patchouli-scented tree-hugging nutjob trying to save polar bears and endangered ticks while Americans have no jobs and no healthcare. You could have a brilliant plan to address the environment in a way that creates jobs and reduces the need for healthcare, but what exactly did you expect - that your extensive, detailed speech outlining this plan would be a more compelling headline than "President Moonbeam Loves Turtles More than Americans"? Most other Democrats know better. They also know you look like an asshole, won't accomplish a damn thing, and should have been smarter.
e. Aww, you're gonna save the children, are you? Gonna do it without letting the Red wasteland turn their public schools into churches, without breaking or impoverishing the teachers unions that represent a crucial economic and cultural sector, without turning inner-city schools even more into police-state prison feeders and burger-flipper training seminars, and without turning the American educational system into a Presidential dictatorship that will be made into Hitler Youth mills the moment a Republican takes your place? Four words: Land war...in Asia. By the time you realize how much you've fucked up, it's too late. Here's the lesson of history: Education improves when states have good, healthy, well-developed economies. That's it. No mystery. So there's a lesson in something the Presidency will never be good at.
f. So instead of a doctor, a job, breathable air, drinkable water, or a school where their children aren't being shot or turned into morons, you are planning to focus on a negative - reducing the prevalence of federal government abuses of liberty, even though your ability to affect the practice of state and local authorities (where the vast majority of abuses occur) is extremely limited in practical terms. So basically Boris Russianmafiansky and Todd Stockfraudington III will have better prospects in court while Average Guy Tyrone still gets his ass kicked by street cops for matching a description. Average Guy Tyrone thought you were going to change things, and is really disappointed in your failure to do so. Most everyone else is totally baffled by your priorities, and a major subset is actually convinced that you're coddling criminals and are personally responsible for the crime they see in their communities even though you couldn't possibly be. And that's if you could get your legislation passed. Which you wouldn't, but that wouldn't stop everyone from blaming you for everything. Civil liberties advocates would temporarily applaud your efforts, but would soon consider your efforts insufficient or even suspect for not involving a major "house-cleaning" of personnel who aren't on board with the program. See above about purging the CIA, DOD, FBI, etc.
g. You're going to make foreign policy the centerpiece of reform in a country where the existence of other countries is a controversial claim? The most prevalent reactions would be yawns from the majority, petulant quibbling from people with their own specific ideas about what you should be doing instead of that, and deranged conspiracy theories from your opponents. Congress has no interest in passing it. In the media you are an out-of-touch, ivory tower theorist more concerned with how other countries perceive and relate to us than in making this one a better place. Since you're not a warmonger, the relevant bureaucracies would not support your efforts, and even in your chosen field of focus you would be a despised failure. But maybe in lieu of any legislation you could sign some nice treaties...that wouldn't pass the Senate. Oops.
h. You're probably very smart if this is your agenda: Energy is the foundation of an economy, the richest wellspring of prosperity, and the key to an abundant future. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry is the richest anything ever, completely owns every aspect of US policy even remotely related to it (and most other countries' too), is intimately tied to the power and privilege of a number of extraordinarily violent and ruthless foreign governments, the economies of a number of extraordinarily violent and ruthless US states, and the jobs of large numbers of Americans. So is your plan to wage a head-on assault on Big Oil, Big Coal, Natural Gas, retailers of petroleum products, utilities, and basically the roots of most of the US and global economy? Presumably with an invisible army and the votes of invisible Congresspeople? Well, that's probably not practical, but maybe you'll offer that part of the economy some temporary support that reduces their negative impact on the environment and economy in order to get legislation passed that radically promotes solar, wind, storage, etc? Uh-oh...now you're compromising, ptooey! Sinner! Heretic! Sellout! You must be corrupt or something, cutting "back-room deals" with those monsters.
i. Good for you. Can cover a number of bases. Some infrastructure projects can be Energy-related, some Education-related, some Environment-related, some Foreign Policy-related, etc., and all promote employment and tax revenues that further benefits the budget. It's also stuff that Congresspeople can take credit for. Maybe you pass it, if Republicans have been totally shut the hell out of Congress. It will of course have to have tons of compromises, pork, and all sorts of other dubious shit in it, which will confirm suspicions that you are really a "neoliberal." You see, a lot of the money would go to (gasp) corporations, because corporations design and build things, and sell supplies and services. In other words, you're giving taxpayer money to corporations. You must be corrupt. Or some kind of moral coward who won't stand up to corruption. What's worst of all is that you might have to sign a bill with tax cuts in it, because some folks just have a fetish for that sort of thing. Once again, this proves you are a neoliberal no different from your predecessor. If you fail to pass a bill, that would prove exactly the same thing - you're not trying hard enough, or even deliberately sabotaged the bill in service to your secret corporate paymasters who don't want the American economy to prosper.
j. Other? Other? What about my issues? What about the issues of the vast majority of the American people? You must seriously be out of touch to be dealing with Other at a time like this. Or maybe you are dealing with my issues, but the media is only bothering to cover your pursuit of Other. But that's no excuse - if you really cared about what's important, you would make the media report on it like it is instead of making me have to think before reacting to the news. My diary saying as much will be on the Daily Kos Rec List for a week straight. How do you like imagining being the target of this unbelievably shitty attitude?
k. Ah, so you're "completely unfocused," "scattershot," and "confused" about your own agenda priorities. Because you refuse to make priority decisions, the media makes them for you and, of course, only reports on what makes you look the absolute worst. No public pressure can coalesce around any of your issues because you refuse to make choices, so Congress sees no reason to pass anything they wouldn't pass anyway. Your bold initiatives go nowhere, the versions that do end up on your desk bear no resemblance to what you wanted, and your threatened or even actual veto wins only trivial concessions because all the pressure is on you to make something happen rather than on them. Now you can refuse to sign anything and cement the impression that you're an impotent muppet who's out of his/her depth, or sign status quo legislation with token measures that all sides find utterly contemptible and your own spokespeople are embarrassed to brag about. Enjoying politics yet, MFer?
You inherit a national intelligence infrastructure that has been woven over many years into a tapestry of highly questionable and easily abused surveillance practices. It's so massive, so intricate, and so completely interleaved with the day-to-day operations of both intelligence and federal law enforcement that your heart sinks into your colon when you receive your first briefing about it. The public has known about the vague fact of the abuses from investigative reporting for years, but they have no clue what level of shit-machine has been built on top of their republic or how utterly dependent the nation's intelligence and foreign service professionals have become on information they have no right to have. Because you're an educated person, you know it's not really new, just a hyper-technological version of abuses that have been endemic since WW2. You also know that basically every other foreign power does the same or worse, and that you're in an information arms race with China...and losing, with massive economic damage being only one consequence.
Choices 3Consequences 3
3. You inherit a Leviathan surveillance state. Since we've already dispensed with the consequences of trying to fire or prosecute the people involved, you choose to...
(a) Secretly order it to immediately shut down.
(b) Secretly order it to gradually shut down.
(c) Politely and secretly ask that it gravitate away from that sort of thing, and use your authority to hedge the worst abuses.
(d) Publicly expose and condemn it, and publicly order it shut down on whatever timescale.
(e) Publicly defend and manage it to the extent you agree with it and the other two branches of government allow. Does not preclude any clandestine option.
a. Your order merely has the effect of making the intelligence community stop reporting what they're doing to you. They will still be there long after you leave office - you're just passing through, and they can wait you out. If you have a real hardon to enforce your order, see some of the scenarios above about the consequences of waging war on your own subordinates. But just because they stop informing you of their activities doesn't mean you'll stop being blamed for them - in fact, they'll make sure of it. You're trying to keep these affairs clandestine, so you get no credit from civil liberties advocates for your efforts but still have to deal with the internal consequences. You have no allies among the Congressional leadership on the subject, especially in the Select committees cleared to know the whole story - and who have been complicit from the beginning. In fact, Congress is quite "concerned" about what you're doing, as are foreign allies who cross-feed with our intelligence apparatus. You are isolated and paranoid, and anything you do to keep control further increases that state until you're either a left-flavored version of Richard Nixon or are behaving in ways that can be spun to make you look like that. Your erstwhile subordinates will then sit back and watch you self-destruct. Perpetual bureaucracies are patient like that - unlike you, and definitely unlike the paranoiacs in the blogosphere who regurgitate the security state's own retaliatory leaks about you.
b. Your subordinates will be very understanding and supportive of this order. You see, they need time to find out exactly what's going on - they're not really sure themselves. So they say, and so you believe. There must be an internal inquiry and report! That'll take about a year, shepherded by the people who run the damn thing they're investigating. They will weave a convincing narrative tailor-made for your sensibilities, because a good bureaucrat is as good at pandering to the egos of the top as they are at ignoring the merits of the bottom. Let me relieve you of any doubt: You have an ego, and it can be used against you. They will select convenient problems for you to "solve," convenient internal enemies to tar with systemic abuses so you can fire them and feel heroic. Stringing along powerful people who consider themselves liberal is not rocket science. As long as you don't get too wise, they'll be content to act out this little stage production of internal "reform" for your benefit until your silly ass can lose the next election to a Republican whose agenda ($$$) is a lot simpler to manage. But if you are very diligent, then other tactics mentioned earlier come into play. The better you are at enforcing the order, the more rapidly your Presidency will unravel. Things may come to a head where you have a choice between abusing your power to get these bastards or allowing them to get away with everything, and that's when you choose how your Presidency ends: By impeachment / resignation or by irrelevance in your own government.
c. This is achievable within the bounds of a single human being. Not the most dignified approach if you buy into early 19th century agrarian fantasies of a republic unburdened by entrenched power, but the fact is they were dubious even by the days of Alexander Hamilton. Elected leaders other than the rare Senate immortal who refuses to die or lose election are just clouds to these institutions - immaterial, passing phenomena. And not even those leaders can really mess with them. Not because they're so powerful in absolute terms, but because they operate clandestinely as a matter of necessity, and darkness breeds certain attitudes. Unfortunately, you would have to make peace with the fact that your successor will very likely reverse or carelessly discard all the careful policies you set up to protect liberties without pissing off the people who could sabotage you. Such are the limitations of being one human. Enjoying politics yet?
d. Publicly expose a massive, classified, clandestine intelligence-gathering apparatus of your own government and declare open war on the institutions you depend on for national security? Not only would you be impeached, but the indictment would probably include Treason just to be spiteful. You wouldn't be convicted of that, but merely passing the articles would cement your place in history as the idiot who tried to ride a storm and instead ended up having its full force land right on your ass. Oh, and while you're engaging in this war with your own subordinates, millions of people are out of work and have no healthcare or security of any kind. Congratulations on squandering your Presidency and serving as a cautionary tale to anyone else who might try to reform the surveillance state. But maybe the choice is obviated by a whistleblower, so you can publicly comment on it without legal problem. Except, oops, because you didn't expose or stop it before the whistleblower exposed it, now you have to explain why - so either you're admitting impotence, or you're admitting complicity. Gotta love politics.
e. Kind of hard to avoid this option if the activities become public knowledge, given the fact that US intelligence agencies don't operate in a vacuum. US technologies end up in Chinese factories under Chinese labels practically before the American engineers finish designing them, and while there's probably an element of breathless sensationalism about it, the reports are that basically every weapons system under development in the US has been totally compromised to China. And that's just the hostile side of things - our allies make friendly sport of us too. But maybe it would make you feel better if the sifted information was acquired by Britain, France, or Israel before they shared it with the US government instead of being obtained directly? The 4th Amendment is only as strong as the people demand it to be, not as strong as a benevolent government graciously permits. In the knowledge of your limitations as one person, do you paper over the problem and lull people into a false sense of security about their liberties to be exploited by the predators that succeed you in the Presidency? Do you make a lie out of freedom by voluntary abstinence from powers that are being exercised all around you, or do you challenge the atrophied muscles of republic? Are you a grownup, or are you finally, ultimately, just in it to make yourself feel important and superior to others?
The lesson here, kids, is not that progressive change is impossible - it's that it takes more than a President. It takes a persistent electorate who focuses proportionally in reforming Congress too, that doesn't sit around waiting to be rescued or ignorantly expecting miracles, and doesn't allow itself to be puppeteered by the media. Anyone who derisively uses the phrase "11-dimensional chess" to mock other people not measuring up to their fantasies would fail so quickly as a President it would make the world's funniest and shortest reality TV show. In fact, if I could live long enough, I would love to put each and every one of them in the Oval Office and watch them all play out their bitter stupidities one by one. Only it would get a little boring because none of them would learn from the others or from any internal sense of reflection. Now post "tl;dr" so we know how you'd handle complicated briefings as a President.