CNN's May 26 2023 DeSantis is going after Trump like never before includes the following:

Now, DeSantis is making the case that he is better suited to deliver on the promises that Trump himself failed to see through.

Doing so will require pushing the limits of the executive branch like never before, DeSantis has suggested in multiple interviews in the past 24 hours. He told conservative radio host Mark Levin that he had studied the US Constitution’s “leverage points” and would use his knowledge to exercise the “true scope” of presidential power.

“You’ve got to know how to use your leverage to advance what you’re trying to accomplish,” DeSantis told Twitter CEO Elon Musk during their conversation.

I was wondering if the idea of Constitutional 'leverage points' to augment/enhance presidential power relative to current beliefs and norms is a real theory or idea, discussed and debated and documented, or if it's more of a cool-sounding (to some at least) talking point.

Question: Is the idea of US Presidential candidate for 2024 Ron DeSantis' "US Constitution’s 'leverage points'... to exercise the 'true scope' of presidential power" something new, or based on existing theories?

Are there constitutional leverage point scholars or articles on the subject?

For example, 2024 candidate and former president Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the US 2020 presidential election did include some legal theories that had been previously written about, but I wonder if these "leverage points" are a completely new idea?



2 Answers 2


DeSantis isn't expressing any particularly new idea here, nor is there any actual political theory behind this. He's offering a 'total war' conception of politics — effectively an anti-idealistic claim that the nuances of political norms and theories are bunk, and all that matters is raw applications of power — and arguing that he's better suited than Trump to weild power that way. It's a way of thinking common to despots and tyrants throughout history, and I might even grant that he would be better at it, given Trump's demonstrably poor grasp of basic law and civics.

I mean, if we were to take General Sherman's Civil War era quote:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out

and replace the word 'war' with the word 'politics', that's essentially what DeSantis is saying.

As to the 'leverage points'... Though most people don't realize it, the US Constitutional system relies heavily on a respect for political norms, ethics, and the dignity of office. The Constitution is not written like typical law: law tends to be pedantically obsessive about details, while the Constitution uses broad strokes to convey an ideal of governance. These 'broad strokes' are good in the sense that they don't over-limit the actions of leaders, and give US governance the opportunity to grow and change over time, within established boundaries.

But the downside of these 'broad strokes' is that it requires leaders to be (at the very least) honestly selfish. The Founders did not believe that all of our political leaders would be good, honorable, and morally upright people; they were understandably cynical about the 'good natures' of people who seek power. Instead, they tried to create a system of diverse and antagonistic powers, so that whenever a nasty, creepy, subversive, and/or tyrannical person wormed their way into high office, everyone else in high office (along with journalists and the like) would see an opportunity to boost their own reputations and power by playing the moral high-card, bemoaning and attacking the 'bad' person until s'he was driven out of office, and then taking a smug victory lap. This created a strong incentive for everyone in power to appear to be good, honorable, and upright, which led to the creation of a whole range of informal norms: essentially understandings that this is where leaders have to draw the line, and anything beyond is blood in the water for the sharks-in-moral-clothing that are one's fellow political leaders.

It's an unlovely system, but it has its recommendations...

But norms are tacit, unwritten understandings; they are not law. Anyone who:

  1. is brazen and shameless enough to ignore norms entirely,
  2. has sufficient support and protection from other brazen and shameless leaders and actors, and
  3. is seemingly willing to burn everything to the ground to get what they want

effectively turns our higher government into an anarchy, where all that matters is power, threat, and obsession. No norms apply to them; no rules apply to them; no laws apply to them, because they refuse to recognize that any of those things have power over them. Norms, rules, and laws apply only to their political opponents, and to those regular citizens they want to dominate.

When DeSantis says that the Constitution has 'leverage points' he means that (as president) he would apply leverage by carefully reading the Constitution in ways that allow him to shatter established norms, rules, and lower laws. For instance (as pointed out by Fizz in his answer), there is a long-established norm that DOJ and FBI operate independently to keep partisan presidents from disrupting the integrity of investigations, and DeSantis has already signaled that he will try to break that norm and turn those agencies into arms of the executive branch to do what he would say. Once norms, rules, and lower laws like that are shattered, DeSantis would become (in principle, if not in name) a king, using the power of the state to get what he wants, when he wants, from whomever he wants, all at his own personal whim. Don't get me wrong: some kings are good kings — or at least, there's an argument to be made for kingship — but it isn't what America was designed to be.

  • 12
    "...but (being ruled by a king) isn't what America was designed to be." And of course, historically at least Americans have had some aversion to being king-ruled, but "those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. So what's DeSantis' attitude toward the teaching of history in school again? May 27, 2023 at 23:33
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – CDJB
    May 30, 2023 at 10:02
  • "there is a long-established norm that DOJ and FBI operate independently to keep partisan presidents from disrupting the integrity of investigations" - Unfortunately this is a completely inaccurate statement now. AG Eric Holder and President Obama had public comments that dispel this notion. Further conservative complaints about "deep-state" is literally a call-out to this statement being no longer true. Belief in the "deep-state" isn't necessary for the norms to be shattered already. A little cart before the horse here. The situation is already primed, DeSantis needs to shatter nothing.
    – David S
    May 30, 2023 at 14:56
  • @DavidS: I have no idea what you're talking about, and even if I did, what you've suggested has no bearing on the existence of a long-standing norm. Take your whataboutism elsewhere, please. May 30, 2023 at 15:04
  • @TedWrigley Try again, no whataboutism there. I'm literally saying that statement about the long-established norm was dispelled during the Obama administration with public statements between Barack Obama and Eric Holder, and the conservative conspiracy theory called "deep-state" is literally calling out the independence of the DOJ and FBI into question. DeSantis has no norms to break in that regard. They've been broken over the last decade already for him.
    – David S
    May 30, 2023 at 15:19

TLDR: based on his Florida experience, we can expect he'd "game the system" on anything possible: running agencies, distributing funding, supreme court nominations (although that's unnecessary right now at the Federal level--nonetheless he seems to think the current conservative majority isn't solid enough), vetoes to get his version of the legislation through, gerrymandering and related election measures to increase his party's seat share, etc. And a good dose of the culture wars to keep the [partisan] public engaged and supportive.

I'm not sure what else DeSantis is considering, but among the things he said (in the piece linked from the Q):

“Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the DOJ and FBI are quote, independent,” DeSantis said. “They are not independent agencies. They are part of the executive branch. They answer to the elected President of the United States.”

That's surely inspired by some form the unitary executive theory.

Proponents of a strongly unitary theory argue that the president possesses all of the executive power and can therefore control subordinate officers and agencies of the executive branch. This implies that the power of Congress to remove executive agencies or officers from Presidential control is limited. Thus, under the strongly unitary executive theory, independent agencies and counsels are unconstitutional to the extent that they exercise discretionary executive power not controlled by the President.

Managed to find a bit more from a Florina newspaper, quoting snippets of DeSantis' book:

Indeed, in his book, “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis describes how he used his executive authority against school boards, cruise lines, Disney, universities, race studies, local governments and “activist corporations.” He writes with contempt for free-market Republicans who “caved to the demands of large corporations,” and argues instead for government intervention in issues of speech and personal choice “in a way that protects individuals from these powerful institutions.”

[...] He writes that an “energetic executive” should serve as a check on the power of private businesses, including Big Tech and “traditional corporations,” and he scolds his Republican predecessors, arguing that the way Republicans did business is no longer a sufficient check on the growing influence of the liberal movement. “For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government and then get out of the way,’’ he writes. “...In this context, elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially green-lighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.” [...] Like Trump, DeSantis has imposed bans on speech relating to gender and diversity at universities. In addition, he has advanced policies that withhold state investments in banks that practice environmental, social and diversity policies. [...]

He threatened Disney, suggesting he would dissolve its special taxing district because of its advocacy on behalf of LBGTQ rights and against his proposals. He banned companies from requiring vaccinations, and battled cruise lines over vaccine passports. And he ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office, calling it a “clear signal to other prosecutors around Florida” not to follow Warren’s lead on progressive policies. [...]

He has expanded the scope of his executive authority, issuing hundreds of executive orders each year, and adopted rules to restrict speech and public gatherings. For example, the Florida Department of Management Services last year issued a rule to empower law enforcement to remove from the Capitol demonstrators they think may prove disruptive. This year, the agency issued a new rule banning any organization, including companies and advocacy organizations, from reserving space in the Capitol unless the DeSantis administration has determined that it “aligns” with its mission.

And, of course, to his critics that has another name: "right-wing populist authoritarian":

Mac Stipanovich, a former GOP consultant including for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, describes the dominant viewpoint in the Republican Party today as one of “right-wing populist authoritarians.” DeSantis approach to government is a stark contrast to the Reagan ideal of “the best government is the government closest to the people,’’ he said. “Just look at his savaging of local governments and local voters, whether it’s school boards, city councils or county commissions — he is just dictating everything out of Tallahassee with highly centralized government,’’ he continued. “....DeSantis decides who can come in and can’t come into your business, and what you can and can’t tell your employees when you’re giving them human resources training. “That is about as un-conservative and un-Republican, historically speaking, as you could possibly conceive.”

One of the points that DeSantis' critics miss (IMHO) is that he (like Orbán in Hungary, with whom he's often compared in terms of the "belief in the central importance of cultural war and the need to wage it using state power") had broad support of the legislature in his state. How he'd able to work around that if he doesn't have a majority in [both chambers of] Congress he hasn't been explicit insofar, from what I read.

OTOH, if does get such majority...

“He’s not charming,” says GOP state representative Fiona McFarland. “But he’s a terminator.” [...]

DeSantis’ methods of keeping the legislature in line are not subtle. At one point, a Republican lawmaker was planning to oppose a DeSantis-backed bill until he got a phone call from the governor, who had helped the lawmaker get elected. Without preliminaries, DeSantis barked into the phone, “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Yes,” the startled lawmaker answered. Without saying another word, the governor hung up, two people familiar with the incident told me. Message delivered.

But anyhow, his point about doing government's business (in Florida) is told in his book:

As DeSantis entered office in 2019, the power of Florida’s executive was already at a historic high.

He was determined to use every bit of it. “One of my first orders of business after getting elected was to have my transition team amass an exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor,” he writes in The Courage to Be Free. “I wanted to be sure that I was using every lever available to advance our priorities.” Aides from the time have corroborated this account, describing a thick binder of information that DeSantis proceeded to devour. [...]

DeSantis short-circuited the usual process for state supreme court nominations, allowing him to cement a conservative majority that would be unlikely to overturn his policies, as previous courts had done to his predecessors. He used a new, aggressive interpretation of his powers under state law to remove local elected officials, including Scott Israel, the Broward County sheriff whose response to the Parkland school shooting drew criticism. Previous governors had reserved that right for officials who broke the law, and a state senate special master recommended that Israel be reinstated, but DeSantis pushed through the removal.

And on the rare occasion when Florida legislators weren't with him... "veto".

When it came time to redraw the state’s congressional districts in 2022, legislators proposed a new map that largely preserved the delegation’s balance. A voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibited partisan gerrymandering and sought to protect minority districts, and lawmakers were wary of being slapped down by the courts if they went too far. But DeSantis had read the relevant laws and precedents, and in January 2022 he proposed his own map, which eliminated a majority-Black district in north Florida and gave the GOP a shot at up to four additional seats in Congress.

None too keen on this attempt to usurp their traditional responsibility, legislators ignored DeSantis and passed their own map instead. DeSantis vetoed it. [...]

The redistricting fight was pure DeSantis. “He did that single-handedly—nobody pushed him—and he was relentless,” one current GOP lawmaker told me. Brian Ballard, a powerhouse lobbyist in Tallahassee and D.C. and an ally of both Trump and DeSantis, says the gambit cemented his dominance. “The [state] senate didn’t lay down for him at first. But he showed he was able to use his political popularity in a way that previous governors had not, and it’s brought him incredible power.” [...]

When a locally elected Democratic prosecutor announced he would not enforce DeSantis’ abortion and transgender policies, DeSantis removed him based on his own reading of the relevant statutes. (A court ruled that the rights of the prosecutor had been violated, but that his dismissal could stand.)

And while he could not quite replicate Orban's method of press control, he came up with next best thing possible in the US:

A pair of local digital outlets, Florida’s Voice and the Florida Standard, popped up shortly after DeSantis was elected, helmed by writers with backgrounds in conservative activism. Their funding sources are unknown, but with DeSantis’ help, they frequently break news about the governor, forcing the rest of the press corps to follow their lead.

We can probably expect similar changes to other informal federal equivalents, like the White House press corps etc., if DeSantis is elected.

He also wants to solidify the conservatives lead in the US Supreme Court, hoping to replace Roberts too:

“If you replace a Clarence Thomas with someone like a Roberts or somebody like that then you’re actually gonna see the court move to the left, and you can’t do that. I also think if you look over those eight years, you very well could be called upon to replace Chief Justice John Roberts, and perhaps even, someone like Justice Sotomayor,” DeSantis said.

“So, it is possible that in those eight years we would have the opportunity to fortify justices Alito and Thomas, as well as actually make improvements with those others and if you were able to do that then you would have a 7-2 conservative majority on the Supreme Court that would last a quarter century, so this is big stuff,” he added.

  • "He writes that an “energetic executive” should serve as a check on the power of private businesses". So, he's a Democrat?
    – RonJohn
    May 29, 2023 at 20:15

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