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Checks, please—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was published in the January 15, 2008 issue of the UK Guardian.

Checks, please
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

A new conventional wisdom is sweeping presidential politics. All and sundry proclaim that the American system of government is broken and that the only hope is to elect a president who can transcend partisan politics. This diagnosis serves as the common denominator for very different political calculations. Michael Bloomberg says it to explain why he may spend a billion dollars of his own money on an independent run for the White House. John McCain and Mitt Romney say it to distinguish their mainstream campaigns from that of Bible-thumping Mike Huckabee. Hillary Clinton says it to neutralise the post-partisan appeal of Barack Obama.

Nonetheless, it is nonsense. The defining feature of the US constitution is the separation of powers - with Congress, the president and the supreme court checking-and-balancing each other. It's true, of course, that this makes impasse very likely. But that's just the point. The system succeeds, not fails, when it stalls large change until there is a broad consensus to support it.

It seems like only the day before yesterday that the air was alive with a different complaint. President Bush, the Republican Congress and the John Roberts-led supreme court were threatening to march lock-step into an endless war on terrorism without any checks and balances. After six long years, the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 has returned us to the bittersweet pleasures of divided government.

But this has not been enough for many critics. They insist that now that Harry Reid is majority leader of the Senate, he should end the Iraqi war at once. Unfortunately, however, this facile criticism forgets that Reid got his job only because Senate hawks like Joe Lieberman voted him into office. Given the current balance of power, all we can reasonably expect is an endless series of congressional squabbles that puts the Bush administration on a shorter leash.

America could achieve instant responsiveness only by trading in its constitution for a British-style government. British prime ministers can sometimes ram major initiatives through the House of Commons on razor-thin majorities - for good or for ill. But the American founders chose a more deliberate approach. A single electoral victory rarely changes much. Big change comes only if a party can win a series of elections that give it the presidency and a commanding position in the House and Senate at the same time. Anything less means partisan conflict and interstitial change, at best.

This doesn't mean that the system isn't working. Periods of deadlock force us to recognise the hard truth - that it's tough to hammer out a consensus in a country of a quarter of a billion people. If Americans are lucky, energetic debate during periods of deadlock prepares the way for broader agreement after another election or two.

We should recognise, then, that protestations of nonpartisanship inevitably have a very partisan edge. The idea of a nonpartisan third-party presidency is especially silly. If Bloomberg were elected president, he would be eaten alive by both Democratic and Republican partisans in Congress who would join together to show that the interloper didn't deserve a second term.

A more familiar dynamic will also undermine President John McCain's bipartisan gestures. Since only 12 Democratic Senate seats are up for grabs in 2008, it is virtually impossible for McCain to sweep in a Republican Congress. His move to the White House would inevitably generate a bitter conflict over the Iraq war that would poison inter-branch relationships.

In contrast, Democratic efforts to create a new majority for "change" have a different valence. The election of Clinton or Obama would sweep in stronger Democratic majorities in Congress, opening up a period of decisive action - if the new president can display the requisite combination of inspiring rhetoric and canny horse-trading.

A big if. Only one thing is clear. We should not allow all the talk about change to conceal the very real differences between the parties. The grand bipartisan gestures of the Bloombergs and the McCains don't mean very much, since a critical Congress will explore the weak points of their initiatives with partisan zeal. But Americans should take the plans of Clinton and Obama very seriously indeed, and ask ourselves whether we, as a people, are ready for a new beginning.