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Dealing with the worst—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was published in the Guardian Limited on May 21, 2007.

Dealing with the worst
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

Tony Blair and George Bush are both discredited, but only the British system has managed to arrange a not-so-graceful exit. While Blair makes way reluctantly for Gordon Brown, Bush will be contemptuous of public opinion for 18 more months.

This contrast challenges conventional wisdom. British prime ministers are supposed to be powerhouses while American presidents are weakened by the constant pressure of checks and balances. This bit of Anglo-American lore contains a grain of truth during normal times, but it is completely false during the worst of times, when a leader suffers a collapse of popular support.

Then, the British rely on the ultimate check: each party's instinct for self-preservation. When faced with the grim prospect of electoral defeat, the ruling party ruthlessly turns on its leader and forces him out - with the mighty Blair following the mighty Thatcher to the exit, while the mighty Bush thrashes about defending his repudiated policies and henchmen to the bitter end.

If America had a parliamentary system, Bush would have been shown the door by congressional Republicans, probably before the 2006 election. But nothing similar can happen in today's Washington. Bush has bought himself impeachment insurance in choosing Dick Cheney as his vice president.

Senate Democrats will embarrass Senate Republicans this week by forcing them to cast a vote on Alberto Gonzales' fitness for office. Since 22 of those Republicans face reelection in 2008, a sweeping vote of "no confidence" is likely. But under America's presidential regime, this resolution is merely symbolic. Gonzales will stagger on for a month or two before the president compels him to follow Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz to the sacrificial altar.

While this ritual drama will occupy center stage, the president will be suffering more important personnel losses. As the clock ticks towards 2009, more and more sub-cabinet officers will be leaving for lucrative jobs in the private sector. After years and years of hard work, they will see little point in laboring onward in a world of unremitting Congressional critique. Their childrens' college tuitions need paying, and nobody can fairly complain when "loyal Bushies" grab the next half-million dollar job that comes along.

But the question remains, who will take the dead-end jobs that become vacant? Normally, late second-term vacancies are snapped up by bright up-and-comers who are happy to sharpen their resumes with a deputy assistant secretaryship. But only the most dimwitted opportunist would suppose that this is a good time to jump on a sinking ship.

While vacancies always increase at the end of second-term presidencies, Bush's actual capacity to govern will suffer a terrible decline in the months ahead. Competence has never been this administration's strong suit, but it will be hitting new lows with every passing month.

Much of the government can operate on autopilot. But if America is forced to confront a new crisis, the country and the world may pay a very heavy price.

During all this time, a very different scenario will be playing out in Britain. Gordon Brown will be putting a fresh face on Old/New Labour - revitalizing his leadership team, revising his policies. Then, when the time seems right, he will be leading his party onward to confront the Conservatives in the next election.

Perhaps he will win, perhaps he won't. But at least the British system doesn't invite up-and-comers to sit on the sidelines and wait until the party somehow recovers from Tony Blair's tragic blunders during his final years in office. At least it doesn't alienate millions of ordinary citizens who click on the television only to see the same old discredited face speak the same old discredited lines.

The contrast between presidential and parliamentary government has generated centuries of Anglo-American debate. The issues are complex and the trade-offs multidimensional. What is more, neither Britain nor America will be rethinking its basic choice any time soon. Nevertheless, we should try to understand even those things that we cannot change.

From this perspective, one can do worse than a "worst-case analysis". From time to time, all democracies will endure periods of failed leadership. And when this happens, the British system wins, hands down.

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale, and the author, most recently, of The Failure of the Founding Fathers.