“It is a misfortune incident to republican government, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust. In this point of view, a senate, as a second branch of the legislative assembly, distinct from, and dividing the power with, a first, must be in all cases a salutary check on the government. It doubles the security of the people, by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one, would otherwise be sufficient.”
“A good government implies two things; first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained. Some governments are deficient in both these qualities: Most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert that in the American governments, too little attention has been paid to the last. The federal constitution avoids this error; and what merits particular notice, it provides for the last a mode which increases the security for the first.”
‘Publius,’ The Federalist LXII [James Madison] Independent Journal (New York), February 27, 1788
The media worldwide resonates increasingly to the tune that the United States has become ungovernable, that the country is so deeply divided that governance is now all but impossible, that the country is committed to the fate of 18th century Poland, doomed to disappear as a nation for the better part of a century (Paul Krugman as reported in The Economist, February 20, 2010).
The media, and Paul Krugman, are simply wrong in this assessment. The United States currently is being governed precisely in the manner predicted by the Founding Fathers (albeit with one exception). The Founding Fathers never anticipated the emergence of the Imperial Presidency. The Senate presently is fulfilling its role of ameliorating damage that might otherwise have occurred as President Obama forgot his obligations and moved forward with a policy agenda rejected by a significant majority of the United States electorate.
The 2008 presidential election was a very unusual event. With the presidency of George W. Bush widely and correctly discredited for gross incompetence, the election was fought out for the most part in the Democratic Party primaries, pitting a relatively experienced (and therefore controversial) (female) Senator, Hillary Clinton, against a relatively inexperienced (black) Senator, Barack Obama. Obama arguably defeated Clinton not on the basis of salience (policy positioning in multi-dimensioned political space) but on the basis of valence (better looking, much more eloquent, more energetic). The general election ran greatly to Obama’s advantage because of the financial crisis that unexpectedly engulfed the United States in September 2008 and paralyzed the uphill political campaign of John McCain.
I have little doubt that Barack Obama mis-interpreted the nature of his significant victory, uplifted as he must have been by the tumultuous welcome that his victory received from a population rejoicing that the evil stain of slavery, in part at least, finally had been scrubbed clean. In reality, a frightened electorate was looking to its new President for a moderate policy agenda that would ease the country out of the financial crisis and economic recession, and return it to the era of The Great Moderation, 1984-2000, when stagflation had been eliminated, and steady economic growth, high rates of employment, and low rates of inflation blessed this exceptional nation.
Such moderation, however, was not to be. Flushed by his victory, and reinforced by significant Democrat majorities in both Houses of Congress, the new president forged ahead with a left-leaning government- expanding policy agenda that put both FDR and LBJ into the shadows. At first, his policies were quickly enacted into law by Democrat majorities that basked in the President’s overwhelming personal popularity. Budgets bursting with pork and overflowing with huge deficits were quickly passed into law, with little attention paid to the opposition of the disheartened Republican minority.
By the summer of 2009, however, the electorate began to awaken to the true nature of their President’s political agenda. This was no program of moderation designed to return the United States to its usually well-functioning market system. This was a systematic attempt to redirect the United States to a social market economy. The examples of old Europe, of France and Germany do not resonate well in the American psyche. So Obama’s poll ratings trended downwards. With respect to his three major initiatives – healthcare reform, cap and trade, card check – clear and growing poll majorities showed strong opposition.
The House of Representatives, under the insensitive, ideologically-driven leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, completely ignored the warning signs. Ideology trumped politics as the House rushed to pass Obama’s agenda into law. This is exactly what the Founding Fathers anticipated. The House, after all, was designed as the engine of the legislature, fired up by the enthusiasm of transient majority impulses, and operating on a two year treadmill.
Enter the brake, the Senate of the United States, operating through seemingly arcane rules that had evolved through the centuries – most notably through Rule XXII that requires the assent of three-fifths of all senators to bring a debate to cloture – to slow down the pace of legislation, to provide time for the reflection and reconsideration that a sound republic must demand of its representatives.
And the brake has proved to be effective. Even when the Democrats possessed the requisite three-fifths majority, the Senate was slow to act, slow to release bills to the floor for debate and vote. This provided sufficient time, by a hairs-breadth or a whisker, for the people to respond, to take away the two third majority and thereby to freeze bad legislation before it could be rushed irreversibly into law.
‘God bless the United States Senate’ should be the cry of the world’s media, at least that part of it that bears Americans good will. ’Go back to the drawing board, Mr. President, and pay particular respect to the great people whom you are honored to represent. By paying such respect, and by honoring your oath of office, you may well secure your second term and, with it, ample time to move the United States back to a second episode of The Great Moderation. And be thankful that brave Republican Senators,and a yet braver few within the Democratic majority, saved your political bacon by resisting your irrational exuberance at a time when it must have seemed to be political suicide so to do.’
Tags: Obama versus Clinton, Obama versus McCain; Obama's political misjudgment, political salience, political valence, the desire for the Great Moderation, The House as the engine, the lurch to the social market economy, The Senate as the brake