Jay 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.