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.
Then came Ronald Reagan, and all that chatter disappeared.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist with
The Washington Post.