You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Four Years Is Not An Eternity

Matt Yglesias muses that he wouldn't have much of a problem with strong executive power if the U.S. had a parliamentary system of government in which it were easier to remove the executive from office:

I feel I should say that while I'm not at all happy with the precedents Bush is setting with regard to presidential power, that I think the case for strong executive power as such is actually pretty strong. The trouble comes from the nexus between the strong executive and other aspects of the American constitutional system… The President of the United States, as we've been seeing the past two years, can basically do what he wants know matter how unpopular he becomes or his specific decisions are.

I'm not sure that this model--a powerful executive not subject to many legal restrictions but who serves at the pleasure of a legislature highly responsive to public opinion--is actually more desirable than the fixed-term-plus-separation-of-powers system we have, particularly from the standpoint of liberalism. Would we really be better off if the executive were incapable of surviving temporary bouts of unpopularity--if, for instance, the JFK-LBJ administration had fallen after the Bay of Pigs, or if Newt Gingrich had replaced Bill Clinton and assumed unchecked power in 1994? The response, of course, is that presumably a Gingrich presidency would not have lasted long (and would have been so entertaining!), but it seems like stability should count for something here: enough damage can be done by irresponsible, unconstrained leaders, even in a short tenure in office, that that ought to outweigh the frustration of not being able to get rid of inept ones immediately. The public should have to demonstrate, over the course of more than one election, that it really wants the entire federal government in the hands of someone like Newt Gingrich.

At the end of the day, this is why I really can't bring myself to sympathize much with arguments like the one made in Courtney Martin's eloquent, much-discussed American Prospect piece about youth disillusionment with politics. The main reasons she cites for that disillusion--ongoing war in Iraq, inaction on climate change, no universal health care--owe mostly (if perhaps not entirely) to the fact that, well, George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. In light of his current unpopularity, this feels maddening--but Bush has considerably less power now than he did before the 2006 election, and it looks fairly likely, barring a wholesale shift in public opinion, that come January 2009, Bush's philosophy of government will hold very little sway indeed. Our outrage at Bush's failures shouldn't obscure the fact that the system is working more as less as it's supposed to, and if the public continues to demand change, it will come soon enough.

 --Josh Patashnik