January 04, 2005

The Presidential Paradox

As the Wall Street Journal reported just the other day, the new Justice Department memos on torture stay mum on the question of whether the president has the authority to supersede anti-torture laws. To tell you the truth, I'm a bit tired of debating all this. So here is something else I've been idly wondering of late. What do we even need a president for? Is it better to have one than not? Is the presidency a flawed institution?

(Warning! What follows is a rather amateur effort. Political scientists, by all means, avert your eyes.)

Most democracies, of course, don't have anything resembling the American president, who a) is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, b) is not at all beholden to his party (ie: he is not selected by the legislature), and c) can claim to speak for an entire country. At least, ever since Andrew Jackson in 1832, presidents have claimed that they represent the "will of the people", with their mandates and whatnot. The American president is also, interestingly, both the ceremonial head of state and the powerful prime minister.

Practically speaking, the most important role for presidents is foreign policy. Presidents have wielded almost unilateral control over this area, especially ever since 1964, and perhaps this has been for the best. The Cold War, for instance, can be viewed as a clash of wills, leader against leader, person against person. An American leader with less stringent powers—say, an Israeli-style prime minister who needed constantly to string together coalitions in order to conduct his foreign policy—might not have been able to act as steadfastly against his Soviet counterpart. Maybe.

On the downside, Congress seems to have very little ability to control the president on foreign policy. Cutting off military appropriations in the midst of a war can definitely work—as with Vietnam in 1973—but this sort of thing is generally considered "unpatriotic" when thousands of troops are overseas fighting. We all remember a certain $87 billion, after all. On balance, though, I tend to think the presidency is the right institution to conduct American foreign policy, though it may require a bit of tweaking and checking.

Now what about domestic policy? Here the president also has considerable leeway in setting the domestic agenda, even if he or she doesn't necessarily win the election based on that agenda. In part, I think, this is because the president is the only national politician, and hence the only one who can really symbolize the broad view of where the country as a whole should go. Even Senate Majority Leaders are restrained in vision by their local constituencies (see Tom Daschle). House Leaders are less restrained, thanks to the advantages of incumbency, but House Leaders generally get where they are thanks to a) the inertial nature of the House (its makeup isn't very responsive to changes in national attitudes), and b) various maneuvering from within. Denny Hastert is in charge only for internal reasons, not because he represents the people. No, only the president really has anything approaching a legitimacy to set an agenda, even if that legitimacy is often problematic, or entirely fictitious.

Now this puts a lot of unfair pressure on the president, sad to say. As heads of states, presidents are expected to be moral exemplars, symbolic leaders. But since they are the only people with any claim to the title of national agenda-setter, they necessarily must also get down into the mud of politics. As Robert Dahl once memorably said, presidents must be both "shrewd politicians and gifted statesmen." It is an impossible balancing act for most.

Even more vexing is the fact that presidents must handle both foreign and domestic policy, even though these two things are not always related. Bill Clinton endured criticism for focusing too much on domestic policy, but really, why is this so unnatural? There is no intrinsic reason why someone with a liberal ideology should have this or that foreign policy. Nor is it always the case that someone with a foreign policy vision should have a "corresponding" domestic policy vision. Presidents do have both visions, because they have to, but the two are often inconsistent. We have, for instance, George W. Bush, who believes in both a mighty army abroad and low taxes at home. Or flexing our free trade muscles abroad but corporate favoritism at home. The world is usually too big to fit under one political ideology.

Now this contradiction manifests itself in interesting ways when it comes to voting. Real partisans, I think, tend to vote primarily on domestic policy and then more or less agree to whatever foreign policy "their guy" happens to take up. If Al Gore had been elected in 2000, and then embarked on a great democracy-promotion venture abroad, including an invasion of Iraq, I suspect that most Democrats would have rallied behind it, while most Republicans would have pooh-poohed the whole thing as counter to the "national interest." I probably would have.

On the other hand, many swing voters may vote based on foreign policy without agreeing to the domestic policy of the president they elect. That seemed to be the case in 2004, where many swing voters agreed with Bush on his "war on terror" stance, while rejecting his agenda here at home. The problem is that it comes all in a package.

Unfortunately, there's often no reliable way for anyone to vote for, say, a Republican foreign policy and a Democratic domestic agenda. You can vote for a split ticket, but the Senate and House are relatively localized, and even if a majority of Americans vote for, say, Democratic senators (as has been the case over the past three cycles), they can still get stuck with a Republican Senate. (Nick Confessore outlined this state of affairs nicely here.) To put it another way, voters get a real national referendum on foreign policy every four years, but they get no such referendum on domestic policy.

If this is indeed a problem (and I think it is), there are two solutions. We could split the presidency into two separate roles—a commander-in-chief and a domestic agenda-setter. Wisdom-of-crowds types who opposed a National Intelligence Director on the grounds that it was too "centralized" should love this idea. They won't, of course, but they should. Personally, I think it's a bad idea—the squabbling would be too severe.

A better solution is to make Congress a truly national institution. There are a couple of ways to do this. Here's but one. First, we could split the Senate into two. Give each state one Senator, and have the remaining 50 elected at-large via the Hare method. In any given election year, 1/3 of the state senators and 1/3 of the at-large senators would be up for re-election. Meanwhile, we could reduce the number of district seats in the House and have the rest elected by proportional representation.

This means that every two years, the country as a whole gets to vote on a domestic policy from the party of their choosing. (Third parties would probably play a larger role in this system, too.) It reduces the influence of gerrymandering and the undemocratic nature of the Senate, both of which prevent a real referendum from ever taking place. Every four years, meanwhile, the country could clearly vote on both a foreign policy in the presidential election, and, if it so choose, a different domestic policy.
-- Brad Plumer 3:11 AM || ||