Gordon Weil

Gordon Weil

Every so often, the political news gets so rich in misinformation or distorted facts, that it becomes time to expose some myths.

The first myth: President Trump deserves our respect, because he was elected president.

In fact, it’s the presidency that merits our respect. The U.S. is unusual in combining the head of state, the person representing the entire country, with the head of government, the leader of a political party. For example, in the United Kingdom, the queen is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government.

As for Trump or any president, he or she must earn our respect. But we also respect the presidency. The officeholder has the responsibility of conducting the office to maintain that respect. The American people can then easily rally to support a unifying president in time of crisis.

If the president’s conduct is disrespectful of the office by ignoring his or her responsibility as chief of state, our unusual American approach to government is threatened.

The second myth: the American president runs the government. Unlike a corporation run by a single person, who may give orders to subordinates and fire them at will, government agencies have powers independent of management by the president.

To protect the administration of justice from political manipulation, laws have been passed by Congress and signed by presidents that shield many Justice Department functions from political control.

Presidents propose laws and carry out policies consistent with the law. They also appoint people to head government agencies. By their broad policies and appointments, they set the course of government and must take responsibility for it, but they cannot run the agencies or instruct agency heads on carrying out their jobs.

For one thing, government, even if it were trimmed down, would be too large to manage centrally. A president may order military action, but he or she will not designate the specific unit assigned to the job. That’s up to the Defense Department.

President Trump appears to have thought he could control Attorney General Jeff Session’s decision to take himself out of Russian election tampering investigations. He was reportedly angry when Sessions did just that. But, in fact, he has no control over such a decision.

In the end, if there is a real conflict, the subordinate may have to leave office. But too many firings or heated resignations could undermine the president’s authority in other matters. Richard Nixon learned that in the Watergate scandal.

Myth 3: Oaths matter. In his confirmation hearing, Sessions swore he would tell “the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The term “the whole truth” ought to mean he left nothing out.

But in denying he had talked with Russians during the presidential campaign, he omitted two meetings with the Russian ambassador. Later, he said those meetings had nothing to do with the campaign but only with his job as senator. Fair enough, if true, but still his answer was not “the whole truth.”

He might have avoided subsequent controversy if instead of telling “the truth,” he had revealed “the whole truth.” As a lawyer, he should have known better.

Myth 4: The majority seeks bipartisanship. President Trump received much credit for the restrained tone of his first speech to Congress. At times, he called for the two parties to work together. But his dismissive hand gestures toward the Democrats belied his words, indicating they simply ought to fall in line.

Both parties talk about a willingness to come up with a bipartisan approach. But the majority invariably means the minority should cave in and agree with it and, surely enough, we’d have a bipartisan approach.

If we ever see them sit down and negotiate with each side making concessions, that will be bipartisanship.

For Maine Gov. LePage there’s no spirit of compromise. He blames any lack of agreement on the “faulty ideology” of “liberals,” meaning Democrats. Fortunately, legislators of both parties still know how to compromise.

Myth 5: The people are sovereign. Under our system, all political power flows from the people. Every bill passed by the Maine Legislature begins with the words, “Be it enacted by the People of the State of Maine.”

Maine voters, like people in 22 other states, can pass laws on their own or veto laws passed by the Legislature. The laws they pass are unquestionably adopted by the sovereign people. But LePage and some legislators tinker with the just-passed minimum wage law, claiming they know better than the sovereign “People of the State of Maine.”

Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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