On the eve of the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, I got to thinking a bit how we are even here. How have we gone from having an honest conversation about America’s health care system to deciding the fate of legislation solely given to the current President and how his legacy, or at least part of it, hinges on this decision and its aftermath? The more I thought about it, the more I got to thinking about the nature of our current system of government we have now. Congress has an approval rating of 9% and we have two presidential candidates carrying on that right now, largely resemble another Seinfeld election where it’s essentially about nothing. That is a condemnation of the Republican Party who turned away the reform, activist grassroots that brought us back to power in 2010 way faster than we had any right to be back for a billionaire one-term governor who’s never lived a hard day in his life. Then we have an incumbent president who was elected because he promised everything to everyone, knowing full well he could meet none of those promises. It is insidious what he pulled over us.
Then I got to think, whose fault is this? Is it Congress’s fault? We hear nothing but the infernal partisanship that mucks up the system. If only the Tea Party would “compromise.” If only the Progressive Left would “compromise.” Yet any student of history would understand today’s partisanship pales in comparison to the days of congressman beating senators half to death at their desks or men threatening duels on the floor of the House. In fact, our partisanship I would argue is less than in the past because of all the media transparency and the unprecedented access every-day citizens have into the inner-workings of government.
The problem is the Presidency itself. Never before had we have had such a sustained effort to hold one branch of government over all others. Both political parties use the presidency as their access to power. Neither party is truly for small government because of the way the presidency dominates our politics. All the efforts of activists and political parties become for one man, and that effort doesn’t stop after they are elected. So much power has become centralized in the executive branch that reelection becomes more important than executing the people’s business. Allow me to elaborate a bit more.
Political parties in 2012 exist to win the presidency. That’s the sum of it all the other bullshit thrown out there these days. Because of that, when that party wins the presidency, maintaining it because more important that the actual restraints of the office. The need to get reelected gets our country in wars, gets it mandates, and big government because the way to win reelection is to show you have done something with government. Americans, learning about FDR and LBJ all of their lives, have become conditioned to expect that. George W. Bush, after running and winning the presidency on a foreign policy of not being the world’s police, structured his entire reelection effort on being a War President. President Obama similarly used the power of the executive not simply enact health care reform but to put his name on it and make every provision, whether good or bad, about him which made it impossible for the political parties to actually discuss the issues. We can go back to president after president, with rare exceptions (Eisenhower), who won or sustained power through promising things for the country and expanding the scope of presidential power and government itself.
I have come to the conclusion that the only way we can truly shrink government and solve our fiscal crisis is to reform the presidency itself. Because the occupant of the presidency becomes the sole focus of our politics and the very power of our government itself, every issue before Congress cannot be debated fairly because it’s partisan before it gets there. Since both party’s purpose for existence these days is to win the presidency, one party will steadfastly defend an issue and another will steadfastly condemn it. Congress DOES try . . . Ron Wyden and Paul Ryan got together, Mark Warner and Saxby Chambliss, Justin Amash and Adam Smith, and so on and so forth. The reason these electeds are often bashed for doing so isn’t because of necessarily betraying their base but because the professional politicians who own the parties ferment this outrage because it means one party gets weaker in its pursuit of power.
I believe I personally now own a biography of every president we’ve had (except Bush and Obama) and in some ways, it has always been like this. Democrats fought for Franklin Pierce the same reason Republicans fought for Benjamin Harrison. But once in office, most presidents before the 20th century did not forced power upon the country, but rather worked as a co-equal. The growth of things like the use of executive orders to subvert our immigration laws, reorganize government agencies, and start wars have come with the increased acceptance of presidential power supreme to those of Congress, the judiciary, and the states. Parties exist now simply for power and for winning. How else would you explain the success of people like Debbie Wasserman Schultz over someone like Jane Harmon? Someone like John Cornyn over someone like Tom Coburn.
This is not a liberal versus conservative issue because both sides in their most principled form are hurt by this imperial presidency that personalizes and deforms every issue before Congress. True progressives are no more a fan of the individual mandate as conservatives, they would prefer the single-payer system, but they never got the shot make that argument because President Obama insisted on this way. You know where a single-payer system is being tried? The states . . . specifically Vermont. Looking back, it is astounding that any conservative would have ever voted for Medicare Part D or for No Child Left Behind? But both pieces of legislation where pushed by President Bush, who wanted to make it the centerpiece of his reelection and because he personalized it, the party was whipped behind him.
And when I saw, “the party,” I don’t mean simply members of Congress. It is the entire web of federal, state, and local elected officials, the party machinery, and the web of consultants and media personalities that ultimately take their marching orders from the party in power and the party in opposition. It’s why I like partisan news because at least we know it’s honest. The presidential campaign of Rick Santorum is the perfect axiom for this. Santorum voted for every single thing President Bush wanted because it was what he was “supposed” to do in Senate leadership. Running for president six years after his defeat, he was basically running against the record of a party that he was an integral part of. Since the country has accepted the preeminence of the presidency, our politics will continue to be broken because every single issue will be about the president and the power he/she will control.
So Chris, Mr. Doom and Gloom, what would you do? I actually do have some thoughts on this and some reforms I would like to see (but probably will never happen):
- A single, six year term for the President. As much as I hate to admit it, this was something that the Confederacy instituted. By giving the President an extra two years to his term, but not allowing him to run for reelection, allows the occupant to settle in and govern without every decision being put through the prism of reelection. It is why I have come to love Virginia’s insistence at a single term for their governor because once he’s he can govern. It is why Virginia has done so well versus the rest of the country.
- Term limits for Congress. Entrenched politicians, elected just because they have always been there, are a huge part of the problem. Presidential power is enabled by entrenched congressmen and senators that rely on federal largesse, gladly doled out by presidents who need those senators and congressmen to help them in their never-ending presidential campaigns, to sustain their power. There is no reason for one person to serve in the US Senate for five terms.
- Rotation in office. I have become a huge admirer of Andrew Jackson because he is one of the very few presidents to use the power of his office to shrink government (the Bank War) and return power to the states. Another aspect of Jackson’s leadership was rotation in office. He never allowed his cabinet officials to entrench themselves and brought them in for specific purposes.
Maybe this is all crazy talk. If so, fine. But the problems in this country boil down to the sole focus of our political system now are to attain power and grow it in the name of continuing that power. It has in the modern era become focused on the Presidency, and in doing that every issue is reflected in that prism of a party constantly looking to get elected or reelected. It never stops. We can never solve the problem so long as every issue is seen solely as for or against the President. The office itself has become way too powerful and Congress has largely allowed it to happen for fear of losing. If congressmen had term limits and new they would be gone eventually, the power and pressure that the President brings to bear on these men won’t be as effective.
Some of the highest turnout in elections was during the dead periods of presidential power, Antebellum Era and the Gilded Age (ending at 1912), because the issues were clearly state and dividied based on ideology and convincing Americans to vote that way. Since the office itself wasn't as powerful, issues were more purely discussed. Fixing our problems will not be done simply by passing this bill or that because they are poisoned by the Presidents who use these issues to define themselves and their legacy over the real good of the country.