The Plank

Four Years Is Not An Eternity

Matt Yglesias muses
that he wouldn't have much of a problem with strong executive
power if the U.S. had a parliamentary system of government in which it were
easier to remove the executive from office:

I feel I should say that while I'm not at all happy with the
precedents Bush is setting with regard to presidential power, that I think the
case for strong executive power as such is actually pretty strong. The
trouble comes from the nexus between the strong executive and other aspects of
the American constitutional system… The President of the United States, as we've been seeing
the past two years, can basically do what he wants know matter how unpopular he
becomes or his specific decisions are.

I'm not sure that this model--a powerful executive not
subject to many legal restrictions but who serves at the pleasure of a
legislature highly responsive to public opinion--is actually more desirable than
the fixed-term-plus-separation-of-powers system we have, particularly from the
standpoint of liberalism. Would we really be better off if the executive were
incapable of surviving temporary bouts of unpopularity--if, for instance, the
JFK-LBJ administration had fallen after the Bay of Pigs, or if Newt Gingrich
had replaced Bill Clinton and assumed unchecked power in 1994? The response, of
course, is that presumably a Gingrich presidency would not have lasted long
(and would have been so entertaining!), but it seems like stability should
count for something here: enough damage can be done by irresponsible, unconstrained leaders, even
in a short tenure in office, that that ought to outweigh the frustration of not
being able to get rid of inept ones immediately. The public should have to
demonstrate, over the course of more than one election, that it really wants the entire federal
government in the hands of someone like Newt Gingrich.


At the end of the day, this is why I really can't bring
myself to sympathize much with arguments like the one made in Courtney Martin's
eloquent, much-discussed American
Prospect piece
about youth
disillusionment with politics. The main reasons she cites for that
disillusion--ongoing war in Iraq, inaction on climate change, no universal
health care--owe mostly (if perhaps not entirely) to the fact that, well,
George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. In light of his current unpopularity,
this feels maddening--but Bush has considerably less power now than he did
before the 2006 election, and it looks fairly likely, barring a wholesale shift
in public opinion, that come January 2009, Bush's philosophy of government will
hold very little sway indeed. Our outrage at Bush's failures shouldn't obscure
the fact that the system is working more as less as it's supposed to, and if
the public continues to demand change, it will come soon enough.


 --Josh Patashnik

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