It’s beginning to look as if the defining cliché of the 2016 presidential campaign will be “day one” — as in “If elected, I will do X or Y on day one of my administration.”
Thursday’s Republican debates offered some examples of this pledge. In the prime-time main event, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reiterated that he would tear up the nuclear deal with Iran on his first day in the Oval Office — but that’s just the beginning!
“To me,” Walker said, “you terminate the deal on day one, you reinstate the sanctions authorized by Congress, you go to Congress and put in place even more crippling sanctions in place, and then you convince our allies to do the same.”
At the late-afternoon “kids’ table” debate, Carly Fiorina said: “On day one in the Oval Office, I would make two phone calls. The first one would be to my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu, to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel. The second will be to the supreme leader of Iran.”
Fiorina admitted that “he might not take my phone call, but he would get the message, and the message is this: Until you open every nuclear and every military facility to full, open, anytime/anywhere, for real, inspections, we are going to make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the global financial system.” (She had better hope that the supreme leader’s voice mail has a long running time.)
In the same encounter, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, dating himself, said: “It’ll be a pretty busy day, but that Iran negotiation is going to be torn up on day one. We’re going to start the process of securing that border. I’m also going to take a bottle of Wite-Out with me to get started on all those executive orders that Mr. Obama has put his name to.”
Ted Cruz also plans a busy first day:
“The first thing I intend to do is to rescind every illegal and unconstitutional executive action taken by Barack Obama. The next thing I intend to do is instruct the Department of Justice to open an investigation into these videos and to prosecute Planned Parenthood for any criminal violations. The next thing I intend to do is instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS to start persecuting” — presumably he meant “protecting” — “religious liberty, and then intend to cancel the Iran deal, and finally move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.”
Then ... lunch.
Some of these first-day actions are perfectly feasible, such as the revocation or “Wite-Outing” of executive orders. But others promise more than they deliver, such as Cruz’s suggestion that he could quickly sic the Justice Department on Planned Parenthood.
The larger objection to “day one” promises is that they reflect a lack of humility. In some cases, it will be obvious that a new president will want to countermand the actions of a predecessor and no further research or consultation will be required. But in other areas — especially in foreign policy — it would be rash to rush to action without sounding out allies and considering the consequences.
Jeb Bush, to his credit, recognized this. He was widely criticized a few weeks ago when he said: “One thing that I won’t do is just say, as a candidate, ‘I’m going to tear up the agreement on the first day.’ That’s great. That sounds great, but maybe you ought to check in with your allies first. Maybe you ought to appoint a secretary of state, maybe secretary of defense. You might want to have your team in place before you take an act like that.”
Even when a president can act on day one — or day two or day three — inking an executive order doesn’t mean that change will actually occur. On Jan. 22, 2009, Obama signed an order providing for the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo “as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”
It’s still open.
The political appeal of promising to change course on day one is obvious; a first-day shakeup dramatizes the democratic principle that elections matter. But patience is also a political virtue. Would-be presidents need to learn it — and before day one.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough