The Bush administration seems to be reeling from policy failure to scandal. Key administration officials have resigned, President Bush’s approval ratings are in the high 20s, with support dwindling even among Republicans and high-ranking military officers. Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who ran Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign, has said, “The country doesn’t believe George W. Bush, it doesn’t trust him, and with 19 months to go it’s only going to get worse.”
The government of George W. Bush clearly has “fallen,” in the classic parliamentary sense. President Bush is the lamest of ducks. He is in Richard Nixon territory.
Yet our presidential system doesn’t have a mechanism to grapple with this. The next election is still a long ways off. The United States is living through the worst aspects of our presidential system, which can produce lame duck presidents due to the rigid mechanism for triggering elections. In our presidential system, elections are held every four years on a regular schedule, regardless of the incumbent’s unpopularity between elections.
If instead of our presidential system we used a parliamentary system like in Canada or the United Kingdom, when the prime minister’s support falls below a sufficient level, several things can happen responding to the changed landscape, including a call for early elections.
First, the prime minister can try forming a new government, acknowledging the shifting tide – that is what Tony Blair recently did, paving the way for his Labour Party ally Gordon Brown to take over as prime minister. But if there is still a dramatic lack of support, the government falls and new elections are called. Voters don’t have to wait many long months, perhaps years, before choosing a new government.
But in our presidential system, even though President Bush lost his legislative majority when the Democrats retook Congress in 2006, he remains in office. Even though his government essentially has fallen, he remains propped up by pomp and ceremony.
Which points to another key difference in a parliamentary system. The prime minister is not elected directly by the voters, but rather is the top leader of the political party or parties holding a legislative majority. This ensures that the executive and legislative branches mostly move in synch.
But in our system the president is elected by popular vote within each state, and the winner is unrelated to which political party controls Congress. It’s not unusual for one party to control the presidency and another to control Congress. Besides President Bush, Presidents Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan and Nixon all had congressional majorities led by the opposite party.
This kind of “split government” has its pros and cons. Sometimes it can lead to a degree of healthy compromise, but over the last 13 years mostly it has produced gridlock. Many factors determine whether you get compromise or gridlock, but unquestionably what we have now is gridlock, not only on Iraq but on many pressing issues including global climate change, health care, pension reform, immigration, rising inequality and more.
Americans are going to have to fasten their seat belts and get ready to suffer through yet another nightmare of paralyzed government. The late 1990s saw a similar period, when President Bill Clinton and a GOP Congress faced off in a kind of death march while the rest of the country watched with horror. Instead of the nation’s business being decided by elections, it was gang tackled by relentless committee investigations and ultimately an impeachment trial.
There are pros and cons to both our presidential system and a parliamentary system, but right now the U.S. is living through the worst downsides of our presidential system, namely lame ducks and gridlocked government.
Ironically, two centuries ago the founders of our Constitution came very close to creating a parliamentary form of government, but rejected it during the final days of the Constitutional Convention. One wonders how many times since, the founders have rolled over in their graves over that fateful decision.
Certainly there are downsides to a parliamentary system, such as a possibility of constantly collapsing governments. The usual example is Italy, which has had dozens of governments in the post-World War II period, though Italy is an extreme example and most parliamentary nations have not suffered such a fate.
Yet on balance, elections are a better way to decide the nation’s political leadership and policy direction. That is preferable to the partisan mischief unleashed by lame ducks and gridlocked politics while the nation awaits the next election.
Steven Hill is the director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation (newamerica.net) and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (10steps.net).