The problem is bigger than Obama -

The problem is bigger than Obama

A Canadian PM coming in on a similar landslide would have a bulletproof government


The problem is bigger than ObamaJay Leno took some time out from his own problems last week to take a shot at Barack Obama. “It’s hard to believe President Obama’s now been in office for a year,” be said. “And you know, it’s incredible. He took something that was in terrible, terrible shape and he brought it back from the brink of disaster: the Republican party.”

In Leno veritas, as they say. Obama’s approval ratings are in the toilet, and his ever-shortening coattails keep sending more and more party loyalists tumbling into the gutter. With Scott Brown’s astonishing theft of the late Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat, it is starting to look as if the Democrats will be toast come the mid-term elections in November.

Since the Massachusetts vote, America’s op-ed pages and television politics panels have been filled with even more than the usual to-and-fro about where Obama went wrong. Some people blame the business cycle, while others blame Obama for making the recession worse. Some say Obama needs to learn to be more like Lyndon Johnson; others say his biggest problem is that he thinks he’s the second coming of LBJ. He’s too arrogant, Conrad Black wrote in the National Post. He’s not arrogant enough, countered James Carville in the Financial Times.

This is all noise in the system. No one seems interested in confronting the real issue, which is that it is not Obama’s approach that is failing. Rather, it’s the infrastructure of American democracy.

Consider for a moment what would happen if a Canadian prime minister came to power in a landslide comparable to the one that swept Obama into the White House. He would have 53 per cent of the popular vote, a rock-solid majority in the Commons of about 180 seats. Assuming his party also controlled the Senate, it would be a bulletproof government, able to force through its legislative agenda with barely a whimper from the opposition. The PM could have even a sweeping health-care reform bill signed, sealed, and rubber-stamped by the GG within a fortnight.

But in the perverse universe south of the border, a single seat can make the difference between the President getting his health care bill through as written and possibly having to abandon the project altogether.

The most prominent problem is the Senate, and the rule that requires a supermajority of 60 members to invoke closure on debate. Without those 60 votes, opposition senators can talk away to their hearts’ content, preventing a bill from ever coming to a vote. The Senate is meant to function as a check against the House, but having the proper functioning of the upper house rely on more than strict majority rule is absolute madness, and it makes the country virtually ungovernable.

Once upon a time, filibustering was a rare tool employed only by individual senators looking to be bought off, and there was far more bipartisanship that allowed majorities to come together across party lines to get a bill through regardless. But during the first Clinton administration, both parties became more partisan and filibustering turned into the political device of a minority party, with the sole aim of frustrating the government.

There’s no hope the Senate might return to its more collegial mode of operation anytime soon, given that the Republican party has gone off the deep end into a pool of pure nihilism. A desperate Obama has made all sorts of concessions to the Republicans in the name of bipartisanship, alienating his own core supporters (for instance, by devoting a third of the stimulus bill to tax cuts)—to receive almost nothing in return.

And the problem of two entrenched and polarized political parties is compounded by the fact that in America it is basically impossible to start another one, which removes from the table one of the most effective self-correcting mechanisms in a democracy.

America is a mess. Even campaign finance reform—which was just torpedoed by the Supreme Court anyway—is a relatively superficial problem. The irresistible conclusion is that what Americans really need is a rethink of their institutions. The U.S. is the world’s oldest democracy, and its constitution has stood up remarkably well over the centuries (especially compared to say, France, which has spent much of the last 200 years switching between constitutions establishing a monarchy, empire, and a republic). But the time may have finally come for it to be rethought.

It has become fashionable in Canada of late to complain about supposedly undemocratic provisions of the parliamentary system, especially the way a majority government turns the PM into an elected dictator who controls all aspects of the legislative agenda. These complaints are usually accompanied by wistful admiration for the American system, which was famously designed with all sorts of checks and balances to protect against the tyranny of unchecked executive power.

Tyranny comes in many forms, though. Where our system focuses power, the American constitution diffuses it, fragmenting and trapping political energy in a web of countervailing institutions. Which is worse: a government that is able to do too much, or one that is unable to do anything at all?

There’s no single right answer. But a democratic system ultimately has to be judged by its outcomes, and the straightforward fact is that the oldest democracy in the world remains the only one in the developed world that doesn’t provide basic health insurance for all its citizens—and does not look in any position to do so any time soon.


The problem is bigger than Obama

  1. "The PM could have even a sweeping health-care reform bill signed, sealed, and rubber-stamped by the GG within a fortnight."

    Perhaps, but doesn't that overlook our own democratic quagmire – the inevitable complications and opposition some provinces would likely muster?

    • Absolutely. So just pretend he wrote "The PM could have even a sweeping new VAT signed" or "single national securities regulator". It's true, and it's scary and wonderful to contemplate at the same time.

  2. Andrew: describe to us what constraints there are that prevent a viable 3rd party from developing. Is it due to the fact that some states more or less don't allow anything else but "independents" to show up on the ballot, or what is it exactly?

  3. The Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate, as well as a large majority in Congress, as well as a the Presidency, for almost a year. They had plenty of time to do whatever the hell they wanted if all their members had been onside.

    The reason the health care bill didn't pass by Christmas, well before Scott Brown won Kennedy's sear, is because many Democrats refused to support it: specifically "Blue Dog Democrats". This situation is analogous to Parliamentary MP's refusing to vote their party line because they object in principle to what their party is doing.

    That sort of individual independence from the Party Whip is a good thing; we'd be lucky to have more of it in Canada.

    • I disagree. Democracy is better served when votes translate into mandates. In Canada we have this because of party discipline and the parties ability to deliver on their platforms – or in a minority setting be able to stake defined ground within a debate. In the US, when you vote Democrat or Republican, you have no idea what you're getting, only some reassurance that your representative or Senator will advocate for your constituency. So forget a national platform, it just doesn't exist in the US.

    • This is less an issue of whipping and more an issue of the parties: because there are only two in the US and they compete in every riding across a diverse country, you get Democrats from conservative areas who are less liberal than Republicans from more liberal areas.

      They (and we) would be better served by a multi-party setup where MPs individual ideas would line up better with the party platform: less need for whipping, while voters still get to elect people based on a platform.

  4. All considered, I prefer the American form of democracy over the one practiced in Canada. Sure, big issues sometimes are stalled, no matter how important, but it is always based on a simple majority decision. In Canada a government supported by a mere forty percent of the voters forces legislation down the country's collective throat because the opposition is handicapped by the fear of triggering yet another election by voting against the passing of a given bill. Yes, I rather have no legislation at all than one not supported by the majority of the elected representatives !

    • Only 1/3 of Senate seats come up every two years so it's difficult to significantly change the makeup of the Senate; that the Democrats got to 60 is something of a minor miracle. With the way the Senate currently works, the majority can easily be kept waiting for years.

    • Not quite. You need a majority (now a supermakority, thanks to the Republican Party, which Potter skirts around, casting too much blame at Democrats who did not filibuster most of GWB's lame-ass agenda) to get anything through the Senate. Since the Senate is composed of two members for each state, you can fairly easily get to 50 members who represent a minority of the country, sort of like a Canadian government supported by a plurality, and not a majority, of Canadians.

  5. My favourite way of describing it is the same way I describe most Canada/USA differences:

    You know why the NDP and Greens are so limited here in Canada? Same thing in the US, just multiply by 10.

    • That doesnt explain why there are so many restrictions on other parties.

      For example, let's say the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the House of Reps got fed up with heir party and declared themselves to be breaking away and forming a new "Progressive Party". (unlikely, but I'm putting out the scenario). What out there in US law or US election law then prevents a "Progressive Party from showing up on the ballot or being effective in Congress? Has Congress's rules stated there will only be 2 parties you can caucus with, else you're considered an independent? I'd really like to know what political restrictions there are down there.

  6. Can Quebec be forced into a single national securities regulator?

  7. Good question which I am not qualified to answer. Hopefully someone else knows!

    • They'll effectively be forced into one once it exists because the business community will pressure provincial governments that opt out to join in. At least that's my understanding of the federal game plan.

  8. Agreed, doesn't actually answer your question. I was just being cute. I thought. :-)

    I suspect (and cannot find anything to counter it) that there's basically no legal restriction on third parties in the US, but the structural impediments prevent much progress. In order to achieve office you either need huge impact in one small area (like our independent MPs), or you need to completely overtake what I could call the ultimate money-making machines, the DNC and RNC (Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have tried but still got nowhere). There are tons of third parties in the US, but you could equally say there are no third parties in the US. Their impact is almost nil.

    As for actual rules, the winner takes all approach of the Electoral College would create a large impact, but not actually stop an attempt. Next attempt at a cute non-helpful answer: money talks?

    • I'm pretty certain the restrictions are insitutional and not in law. The mountains to climb in gaining funding, support and recognition are practically insurmountable when put against the infrastructures of the Republicans or Democrats. Because politicians can run as a Dem or Rep but not be beholden to the parties' platforms, there's little incentive to risk their electability by running with a third party. Perot and Nader are good examples of individuals with money or a constituency of support who haven't been able to gather any steam. Without a parliament in which the party can stay involved between elections, it's too hard to maintain outside of the election cycles.

  9. Actually, I'd counsel a 3rd party not to attempt to field a Presidential candidat at first, but only concentrate on winning the Congressional/Senate seats.

    Get established first legislatively, worry about the Executive branch at a future date.

    • yeah, prob would concur in light of the insane financing required to run a presidential campaign.

  10. Then why have parties at all? You might as well just vote for a dictator, have his power be portioned according to the percentage of ridings he wins. (e.g. 51% gives him complete power, less than that gives him a weighted vote along with the opposition leaders)

    • While Canada has skewed to a leader-centric dynamic, parties still have the option of turfing their leader if he/she oversteps their bounds. This should keep the leader from being a dictator (see Chretien, Jean). I think your question applies to the US model. Political parties serve to aggregate, distill and package platforms of ideas. If you vote for a Democrat and they act like a Republican, what's the point of having either party?

      • I think the point of the party is that every representative is expected to support most of the party's platform. Therefore voters know approximately what they're getting when they vote for a party rep, but the rep is expected to vote based on individual judgement and conscience rather than according to the party line.

        This is a good thing: the whole idea of a "Republic" is that citizens vote for someone they know personally to be of sound judgement, and that representative makes decisions on their behalf in the Capitol. It's far superior to the system we have currently, in which citizens vote based on superficial impressions of a party leader they've never met and he decides the course of his MP's in nearly every vote.

  11. I should add that MPs in Canada are free to argue their positions within caucus and represent their consituencies, and for less important issues should be given the freedom to vote as they wish more often. But generally it's nice that when it matters Canadian parties can whip the vote and get things done, for better or worse, when they need to.

  12. while i agree that more free votes is highly desirable, i think the States is hardly a good model. if i have to choose between party line voting and lobbyists have elected reps in their pockets, i will take the former gladly. there are better models in this regard.

  13. Andrew used the word "ungovernable". A better description is "untransformable". The US is easily governable, as past governments have shown. What it has systemic resistance to is transformation. It was designed to be that way and it succeeds admirably (aka "feature, not a bug").

    The administration and congress don't have governance on their mind – if they had, they would have correctly identified and focused on the primary issue of governance (economic) over a year ago. They are bent on transformation. Given a clear field, they decided to do what they wanted to do rather than what the situation required. They wasted a year pursuing the wrong critical aim. That's their mistake in full and no one should search for other excuses.

    • Brad, you have absolutely nailed it.

    • I agree Brad – those that wrote the constitution knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it.

  14. I believe Brad has put the issue most lucidly.

    Also in the US, most voters want to prevent the party they disagree with from winning, that means voting for the party that opposes them and has a chance to win. That has been the problem in starting a third party. Americans talk idealistically, but vote very pragmatically. OK Obama was the exception to the rul, but even he SAID the right things

  15. Certainly there are problems with the way money and lobbyists have so much power in the American system, but the fact that a President cannot transform the country overnight based on one election should not be seen as a negative.

    Let's not forget that Health Care represents 18% of the US economy, as measured by GDP. That is massive. The American Health Care industry is twice as large as the entirety of the Canadian economy. Obama SHOULD face resistance if he wants to completed revamp such a huge, massive, system overnight. The fact that a Canadian Prime Minister would not face similar resistance is a big problem in our system, in my opinion.

    As Brad put it so well above, the fact he couldn't push that healthcare bill through, is "a feature, not a bug" of the US system.

  16. Interesting that you consider the U.S. one of the oldest democracies. I guess it depends on how you define democracy. Women and blacks make up a significant percentage of the population of the U.S. and these two groups were disenfranchised until quite recently, in historical terms.

  17. I agree with the author. I have watched America become a polarized mess. The goal is not to get something done but to stop anyone else from getting anything done. It has become a fractured system that is immobilized. And, as always, the vultures are circling. What isn't moving is dead and fair pickings.

  18. Well. Let's just hope that he can resolve all the problems that America is facing.