Friday, February 19, 2010

America is not broken

It's a stellar moment when The Economist and Charles Krauthammer make the exact same argument. Yet both are writing to day to argue that the problems Obama is facing today in getting some of his agenda approved are not a sign that the American system is broken. Krauthammer reminds us that during Jimmy Carter's presidency, his ineptness led people to decide that America was just simply ungovernable. Then Reagan and Clinton came along and demonstrated that they were able to pass major reforms such as the Social Security reforms put forth by the Greenspan Commission or welfare reform. People stopped thinking that America was ungovernable. And when Bush couldn't get his judicial nominees through Democratic filibusters, no Democrats thought then that the filibuster was an anachronistic tool better abandoned so that the president could achieve his goals. But now, despite a supermajority in the Senate for most of his first year, Obama was blocked in two of his primary goals - passing health care reform and cap-and-trade. And now the left is full of people arguing once again that America is ungovernable.
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.

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.
And The Economist makes the exact same point in their editorial. They seem to understand that what we are seeing today in Obama's difficulties in passing unpopular policies is exactly what our system was designed to have happen.
This, argue the critics, is what happens when a mere 41 senators (in a 100-strong chamber) can filibuster a bill to death; when states like Wyoming (population: 500,000) have the same clout in the Senate as California (37m), so that senators representing less than 11% of the population can block bills; when, thanks to gerrymandering, many congressional seats are immune from competitive elections; when hateful bloggers and talk-radio hosts shoot down any hint of compromise; when a tide of lobbying cash corrupts everything. And this dysfunctionality matters far beyond America’s shores. A few years ago only Chinese bureaucrats dared suggest that Beijing’s autocratic system of government was superior. Nowadays there is no shortage of leaders from emerging countries, or even prominent American businesspeople, who privately sing the praises of a system that can make decisions swiftly.
It’s alright, Abe

We disagree. Washington has its faults, some of which could easily be fixed. But much of the current fuss forgets the purpose of American government; and it lets current politicians (Mr Obama in particular) off the hook.

To begin with, the critics exaggerate their case. It is simply not true to say that nothing can get through Congress. Look at the current financial crisis. The huge TARP bill, which set up a fund to save America’s banks, passed, even though it came at the end of George Bush’s presidency. The stimulus bill, a $787 billion two-year package, made it through within a month of Mr Obama taking office. The Democrats have also passed a long list of lesser bills, from investments in green technology to making it easier for women to sue for sex discrimination.

A criticism with more weight is that American government is good at solving acute problems (like averting a Depression) but less good at confronting chronic ones (like the burden of entitlements). Yet even this can be overstated. Mr Bush failed to reform pensions, but he did push through No Child Left Behind, the biggest change to schools for a generation. Bill Clinton reformed welfare. The system, in other words, can work, even if it does not always do so. (That is hardly unusual anywhere: for all its speed in authorising power stations, China has hardly made a success of health care lately.) On the biggest worry of all, the budget, it may well take a crisis to force action, but Americans have wrestled down huge deficits before.

America’s political structure was designed to make legislation at the federal level difficult, not easy. Its founders believed that a country the size of America is best governed locally, not nationally. True to this picture, several states have pushed forward with health-care reform. The Senate, much ridiculed for antique practices like the filibuster and the cloture vote, was expressly designed as a “cooling” chamber, where bills might indeed die unless they commanded broad support.

Broad support from the voters is something that both the health bill and the cap-and-trade bill clearly lack. Democrats could have a health bill tomorrow if the House passed the Senate version. Mr Obama could pass a lot of green regulation by executive order. It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill.
It's strange that a supposed expert on the Constitution like Barack Obama should have so little understanding of how our system is supposed to work.