When it comes to a presidential candidate’s policy preferences, I don’t care about them all equally. For example, what a presidential candidate thinks about tort reform, or healthcare reform, or even immigration reform isn’t going to influence my vote in most cases, and the other minority of cases are cases in which the presidential candidate has such a strong amount of influence on the legislators in Congress or a majority of those legislators happen to agree with the presidential candidate’s policy preferences.
A President’s policy preferences matter more now than they did previously; as Congress has sent legislation to his desk creating new agencies for him to appoint heads of, given those agencies more laws to enforce, and given the President more authority to act independently of them, the scope of the President’s power has expanded so much that any President has the opportunity to let personal policy preferences shape outcomes more than ever before.
Certainly, reading Article II of the Constitution wouldn’t give you the impression that the President was expected to propose a bunch of legislation, which is the default expectation now. Reading Article I of the Constitution would give you the impression that this legislation stuff was exclusively the job of Congress. But now, we seem to want the President to propose legislation through the proxies of his fellow party members in Congress, wait patiently for them to approve his legislation, and then wait for them to send it to his desk so that the President might approve his own legislation.
Add into this situation that the President is expected to pick Supreme Court justices, who are increasingly prone to conjuring new rights out of the Constitution (see the right to privacy from Griswold v. Connecticut) and reading new forms of rights into old Amendments (see the “spending money is protected speech” from Buckley v. Valeo) and granting more rights to corporations (see Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). The President picks a Supreme Court justice with the expectation that his policies have a better chance to survive the Supreme Court cases they come into contact with, especially when they have the ability to create a right for whomever their favored party in the case happens to be.
Unsurprisingly, all this means that I need to pay more attention to the President’s political views, because the head of the Executive Branch has also become in practice (but not in title) an influential author of legislation who can make it easier for his legislation to be ruled constitutional. This does not mean that the President always gets what he wants; his party’s members in Congress can stonewall him and the Supreme Court can laugh his attorneys out of court if he’s trying to violate the Constitution in a way even his friendly appointees feel is unconscionable. Not to mention the fact that it’s possible that neither the Legislative Branch nor the Judicial Branch will be members of his party.
Nonetheless, the President’s views now matter on a far larger set of issues than foreign policy and law enforcement, and I have to take this into account when deciding how to vote for a Presidential candidate. That said, a President’s views on foreign policy and law enforcement are definitely the biggest factors in my decision after the primary factor: his understanding of how the Constitution defines the limits of his executive authority. I am not interested in voting for a President who thinks that it is properly within the scope of his authority (perhaps her authority in the near future) to function as a legislator who proposes the law, the executor of the law, and a judicial interpreter of the law.
Farther down the list of relevant factors for me is how the President understands the rest of the Constitution, but this has become an increasingly relevant factor as Presidential power has grown. I now have to consider what his views are on a wide range of rights enumerated in the Constitution. Does, for example, the President think that the Constitution contains a right for any individual to own an anti-aircraft gun or to self-identify as a fox and have legal recognition of foxhood?
If so, then I probably can’t vote for him in good conscience, not because those are objectively bad policy ideas, but because for him the Constitution of the United States is just an old text he can refashion at any time through the magic of confirmation bias. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for most of the Presidential candidates we have running these days (and the Supreme Court justices they would likely appoint), so my voting options are very limited.
I may be practical, but I am not so vacuously pragmatic that I am willing to vote for someone who would solemnly swear to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution while having a massively defective understanding of what the Constitution is and who has the authority to alter it, which is “We The People” and not “I The President” despite what many seem to believe.