Charles Krauthammer has crafted a lucid summary of the last thirty years just in time to head off the usual foolishness put out by the ultra-left poobahs calling for a "different form of government." Starting with the lamentable James Earl Carter, Krauthammer contrasts the difference between weak leaders like.... oh well, you know:
In the latter days of the Carter presidency, it became fashionable to say that the office had become unmanageable and was simply too big for one man. Some suggested a single, six-year presidential term. The president's own White House counsel suggested abolishing the separation of powers and going to a more parliamentary system of unitary executive control. America had become ungovernable.
I remember those days well, with double-digit interest rates, high unemployment, galloping inflation, the foreign policy failures brought on in Iran and Afghanistan we are still living with three decades later..... Indeed, the last year of Carter's limp-wristed governance saw him fire his entire cabinet and establish his sixth and seventh "economic plans" under his fourth Secretary of the Treasury. And the professional chatterers could only talk about the terrible threat of a Reagan presidency which would immediately begin momentum toward World War III. But when RWR was elected in 1980, a funny thing occurred: he fired a bunch of striking air traffic controllers, which threw the not yet Lame Stream media into a tizzy. What a threat to public safety! But Reagan had actually acted on principle, that there is no right to strike when such a strike itself would threaten the public. And Reagan went on to take on larger impediments to national economic & foreign policy success.
The tyranny of entitlements? Reagan collaborated with Tip O'Neill, the legendary Democratic House speaker, to establish the Alan Greenspan commission that kept Social Security solvent for a quarter-century. A corrupted system of taxation? Reagan worked with liberal Democrat Bill Bradley to craft a legislative miracle: tax reform that eliminated dozens of loopholes and slashed rates across the board -- and fueled two decades of economic growth.
Later, a highly skilled Democratic president, Bill Clinton, successfully tackled another supposedly intractable problem: the culture of intergenerational dependency. He collaborated with another House speaker, Newt Gingrich, to produce the single most successful social reform of our time, the abolition of welfare as an entitlement.
It turned out that the country's problems were not problems of structure but of leadership. Reagan and Clinton had it. Carter didn't. Under a president with extensive executive experience, good political skills and an ideological compass in tune with the public, the country was indeed governable.
Now we seem to have a great rhetorician who, in the current VP's words back in '07, speaks well and in the current Senate Majority Leader's felicitous phrase: speaks good English without a negro accent, when he wants to. But is talk the answer? Krauthammer thinks the superficial suits and talking heads of the leftist commentariat are off base in Obama's current quandry. Welcome back, Carter.....
It's 2010 and the first-year agenda of a popular and promising young president has gone down in flames. Barack Obama's two signature initiatives -- cap-and-trade and health care reform -- lie in ruins.
Desperate to explain away this scandalous state of affairs, liberal apologists haul out the old reliable from the Carter years: "America the Ungovernable." So declared Newsweek. "Is America Ungovernable?" coyly asked The New Republic. Guess the answer.
The rage at the machine has produced the usual litany of systemic explanations. Special interests are too powerful. The Senate filibuster stymies social progress. A burdensome constitutional order prevents innovation. If only we could be more like China, pines Tom Friedman, waxing poetic about the efficiency of the Chinese authoritarian model, while America flails about under its "two parties ... with their duel-to-the-death paralysis." The better thinkers, bewildered and furious that their president has not gotten his way, have developed a sudden disdain for our inherently incremental constitutional system.
Bantamweights like Joe Klein of Time and Anne Quindlen of Newsweak [resurrected for a single Cassandra-like dirge and then dismissed back to her career tomb] rail against ignorant Americans while flyweights like Dickerson and Chait exhale twaddle about the "perversity of the filibuster" and emit screeches about the danger of a Republican renaissance. But a clear, long-sighted thinker like Krauthammer, a former MD, diagnoses the ailment.
Yet, what's new about any of these supposedly ruinous structural impediments? Special interests blocking policy changes? They have been around since the beginning of the republic -- and since the beginning of the republic, strong presidents, like the two Roosevelts, have rallied the citizenry and overcome them.
And then, of course, there's the filibuster, the newest liberal bete noire. "Don't blame Mr. Obama," writes Paul Krugman of the president's failures. "Blame our political culture instead. ... And blame the filibuster, under which 41 senators can make the country ungovernable."
Ungovernable, once again. Of course, just yesterday the same Paul Krugman was warning about "extremists" trying "to eliminate the filibuster" when Democrats used it systematically to block one Bush (43) judicial nomination after another. Back then, Democrats touted it as an indispensable check on overweening majority power. Well, it still is. Indeed, the Senate with its ponderous procedures and decentralized structure is serving precisely the function the Founders intended: as a brake on the passions of the House and a caution about precipitous transformative change.
The Founders realized that weak and hysteric leadership could seize the House of Representatives easily, leaving only the Upper House able to keep the Constitutional safeguards against nuttiness intact with the filibuster.
And the ineffable screwball Krugman himself predicted in 2004 that insane commentators would call for the abolition of the filibuster just when the Dems needed it most---of course, he was right and himself, the nuttiest columnist of all, came out recently against the filibuster. Luckily, not every liberal has sold his birthright for a bowl of porridge.
Leave it to Mickey Kaus, a principled liberal who supports health care reform, to debunk these structural excuses: "Lots of intellectual effort now seems to be going into explaining Obama's (possible/likely/impending) health care failure as the inevitable product of larger historic and constitutional forces. ... But in this case there's a simpler explanation: Barack Obama's job was to sell a health care reform plan to American voters. He failed."
He failed because the utter implausibility of its central promise -- expanded coverage at lower cost -- led voters to conclude that it would lead ultimately to more government, more taxes and more debt. More broadly, the Democrats failed because, thinking the economic emergency would give them the political mandate and legislative window, they tried to impose a left-wing agenda on a center-right country. The people said no, expressing themselves first in spontaneous demonstrations, then in public opinion polls, then in elections -- Virginia, New Jersey and, most emphatically, Massachusetts.
That's not a structural defect. That's a textbook demonstration of popular will expressing itself -- despite the special interests -- through the existing structures. In other words, the system worked.
I'm finishing up the book Game Change, a superb analysis of the Democrats' obsession with political process. As far as running campaigns for election or re-election, they leave the Republicans in the dust. But in leadership and governance, with the exception of Bill Clinton, Dems are always thrashing around to find some sort of way to outfox rather than to step up to the plate and behave like adult males. [Hysteria seems to be just beneath the surface with most successful left-wing Democrats, accompanied by doctrines of class warfare and media hyperbole.]
Even today, the flailing Obama is seeking to impose a public option healthcare monstrosity on the American people, not because it is right or popular or good public policy. He and Reid and the Botox-Queen are doing it because they know better, because there may be a procedural way to sneak reconciliation past the Senate parlementarian [although Dem. Sen. Byrd might object concerning goofing around with the "Byrd rule" mandating reconciliation to be used only in tax and budget matters, not in policy and entitlement expansions.]
The Dems see the handwriting on the wall this November and may try to sneak and cheat their way to a policy Pyrrhic victory in health care or the completely discredited cap-and-trade now that Global Warming has been demonstrated to be a systemic and well-organized hoax.
That systemic and well-organized hoax seems in itself a good working definition of the current Democratic Party.