Tuesday, February 09, 2010

This is how the American system was designed to operate

Chris Cillizza reports that the White House seeks to campaign against the filibuster and hopes that that will be a winning election issue for them. They're seeking for an excuse why, with 60 votes in the Senate, they were still unable to pass the President's signature issues like health care reform and cap and trade. Somehow, this has become all the Republicans' fault, despite the fact that, until last week, the Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Cillizza says that another reason for the President to inveigh against the filibuster is to excite his base and get them out to the polls this November.

It's funny how the filibuster never seemed like such a dire practice when the Republicans were in the majority and the Democrats, including Senator Obama, were using the filibuster to block the Republican agenda.

What all this politicking ignores that the filibuster fits with the Founders' vision of how an ideal government should work. As Jay Cost writes in a very valuable post that he entitled "America is not ungovernable," the Founders were concerned in blocking the tyranny of the majority. First he notes all the analysts on the left who have been arguing recently that it is now impossible for anything substantial to get done in the government because of the rules of the Senate. They are missing the point. What has happened this past year is exactly what the Founders had in mind when they constructed a government based on checks and balances.
The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.
As Cost writes, the reason Obama has not been able to succeed with his big initiatives so far is because he did not build a broad consensus. He chose to govern from the left, outsourcing his policy-making to Nancy Pelosi and the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party instead of building out from the center and bringing in moderates from both sides. Obama can't blame the Republicans since, with his large majorities in both houses, he didn't need them to pass his agenda. Liberal writers might want to blame squishy Democrats who didn't support the agenda with sufficient fervor because they were nervous about getting reelected. But that is what a representative government is built on - the desire of politicians to please their constituents. So the liberals are forced to blame the people, arguing that they were simply sheep misled by evil manipulative conservative leaders.

Better, as Cost argues, to look to the President's agenda that he allowed to be crafted by Nancy Pelosi and the liberal leaders in the House. They went first with both cap and trade and health care. And they came up with plans that were so far to the left, that the public rejected them. The country is still center to center-right and so Obama made a fundamental error in ignoring that reality when he decided to govern from the left.
Both of these failures get back to the idea that this country can only be led effectively when there is a broad coalition supporting her leaders. That requires those leaders to have a breadth of vision that this President has so far lacked. He has allowed a very liberal Speaker to lead the House too far to the left, and he has demanded comprehensive reforms that were destined to alienate a significant portion of the country.

He has been narrow, not broad. He has been partial, not post-partisan. He has been ideological, not pragmatic. No number of "eloquent" speeches can alter these facts. This is why his major initiatives have failed, why his net job approval has dropped 50 points in 12 months, and why he is substantially weaker now than he was a year ago.

This strategy might have made sense if the country was really in the midst of a "liberal moment." But it is not. While the President won a decisive victory in 2008, his congressional majority in both chambers depends entirely upon members whose constituents voted for John McCain. In fact, the President's election 16 months ago was one of the most polarizing in recent history. This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.

America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.
When you can't succeed within the system, blame the system. But, as some in the administration might say, the system worked. The checks within the legislative branch have clicked in. In a country as wide and varied as ours, it is impossible to push through a massive change if the plan is crafted from the left. There was a compromise that was possible if the President had started from the middle and tried to incorporate some of the conservative ideas such as allowing insurance sold across state lines, tort reform, and medical savings accounts along with liberal ideas. Instead the President took the "We won" route and negotiated solely with Democrats except for Olympia Snowe. Instead of trying to pick off a single Republican, they could have started with a core of moderate Republicans who have long wanted to reform our health care system. But that wasn't the choice Pelosi, Reid, and Obama made. And now they're reaping the whirlwind.

Their failure doesn't mean that the American system is a failure. Actually, it worked just as it was designed.