It's The System, Stupid
The main thing we could do to improve the functioning of the legislative process would be to dissolve the U.S. Senate. Its composition is wildly anti-democratic, its rules are aggressively anti-majoritarian, and its culture holds all this aloft as a good thing.
But the main thing we could do to improve the media's understanding of the problems in the legislative process would be to dissolve the office of the presidency. (This blog, you have to admit, has a very high ratio of reforms-to-sentences.) It's a bright, shiny, simple thing that's not the actual issue but that no one seems able to look away from. You see this in Clive Crooks' column today. The actual subject of the column is the halting and problematic legislation being produced by the Congress. But the putative subject of the column is how Barack Obama feels about the legislation being produced by the Congress. "The president has cast himself not as a leader of reform," sighs Crook, "but as a cheerleader for 'reform.'"
This endless op-ed alchemy in which anger at the hard, complicated thing (our relentlessly dysfunctional system of government) gets transformed into disappointment with the simple, easy thing (the single individual who occupies the White House) isn't just analytically lazy. It's actively damaging. it implies a solution that will not solve the problem. It implies the need for different presidents, or maybe better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or maybe no party at all (remember Unity 08?).
To take health-care reform as an example (and when, at this blog, do we not use health-care reform as an example?), full-scale reconstruction of the health-care system has been contemplated or attempted by FDR, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. If any of those men had been czar, health reform would have been finished decades ago. But all of them failed, or turned back. And it is not because they were all dunces or Democrats, cowards or incompetents. It is because the system is resistant to large-scale change, even when the problem is obvious. In response to these failures, we frequently change the president, or switch out the party that controls Congress. And then they too fail, and we eventually switch back.
Clive Crook's criticism of Obama is that Obama is playing within the constraints of the system. And by focusing his criticism on Obama, Crook, too, is playing within the constraints of the system. But the problem is not Obama. It is the system.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.
July 2, 2009; 4:48 PM ET
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