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Sold On This Idea

March 7, 2010

Reihan Salam and I really liked Ezra Klein’s first column for Newsweek (!) right up until the penultimate paragraph.  One of the primary agents of Congressional partisanship (which has become increasingly exacerbated during the past half-century), he argues, is the involvement of the President in the legislative process:

Blame the president, at least in part. According to data gathered by the political scientist Frances Lee, when the president—not this president in particular but any president—decides to take a position on an issue, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. If we’re talking about health, labor, defense, or immigration policy, the chances that Democrats and Republicans will stay in their separate corners increase by 20 to 30 percent. On foreign aid and international affairs, the likelihood of a party-line vote increases by more than 65 percent.

Makes sense.  The portion of the electorate that votes Republican is undoubtedly much more opposed to the President than it is to say, Max Baucus or Chris Dodd or Barbara Boxer (moreover, most of it probably doesn’t know who the hell either of those guys are).  That means Republicans risk a lot more when they go along with measures put forward by committee chairmen than issues trumpeted by the POTUS.  And let’s face it, these are politicians.  They don’t want to do anything that puts them at risk.  So the question becomes: what do we do about this?  Klein:

This leaves us with two choices going forward: either we’re going to have to insist that the polarizing president retreats to a more modest role in the legislative process—unlikely, given our evident preference for presidential leadership and our distaste for Congress—or we’re going to have to change the process so that the majority can govern successfully even when it’s not in the minority’s interest to let them do so.

And it was so good until that moment.  Salam:

Shouldn’t we think seriously about rethinking our preference for presidential leadership in domestic policy? I understand the case for a strong executive in foreign policy. In domestic policy, I wonder if we’d be better served by a president who plays a more hands-off role.

Reihan gets the Understatement of the Year Award for that one.  Of course the President should play a more hands-off role.  The Presidency was intended to be an office that represented our country on a national stage and, secondarily, approved or disapproved legislation in order to serve as a check and balance for the legislative branch.  To quote myself, here’s something I wrote about a month ago:

I don’t see “governing” as “enacting legislation”.  That seems like a gross mischaracterization of that word.  Our President is supposed to approve or disprove legislation, not drive its passage.  Those in favor of the “getting stuff done” attitude are almost never in favor of government becoming smaller.  But they see that expansion of government as “fixing problems”.

Or, as Klein puts it, “Legislating is the legislature’s job.”  We shouldn’t be electing a President to enact universal health care or privatize social security or cut taxes or put a cap on carbon emissions.  We should elect a President that we want to represent us on a national stage and be the Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces.  And, on the side, he either approves or disapproves legislation.

Maybe you don’t feel that way—maybe, to you, the President is supposed to “drive the great wheel of history forward”, as Jonah is wont to say.  Well, as Klein shows, perhaps you’d also be better served to have the President stay out of it too.  It’s a win-win.

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