In the latter days of the Carter presidency, it became fashionable to say that the office had become unmanageable and was simply too big for one man. Some suggested a single, six-year presidential term. The president’s own White House counsel suggested abolishing the separation of powers and going to a more parliamentary system of unitary executive control. America had become ungovernable.
Then came Ronald Reagan, and all that chatter disappeared.
The tyranny of entitlements? Reagan collaborated with Tip O’Neill, the legendary Democratic House speaker, to establish the Alan Greenspan commission that kept Social Security solvent for a quarter-century.
A corrupted system of taxation? Reagan worked with liberal Democrat Bill Bradley to craft a legislative miracle: tax reform that eliminated dozens of loopholes and slashed rates across the board — and fueled two decades of economic growth.
Later, a highly skilled Democratic president, Bill Clinton, successfully tackled another supposedly intractable problem: the culture of intergenerational dependency. He collaborated with another House speaker, Newt Gingrich, to produce the single most successful social reform of our time, the abolition of welfare as an entitlement.
It turned out that the country’s problems were not problems of structure but of leadership. Reagan and Clinton had it. Carter didn’t. Under a president with extensive executive experience, good political skills, and an ideological compass in tune with the public’s, the country was indeed governable.
It’s 2010, and the first-year agenda of a popular and promising young president has gone down in flames. Barack Obama’s two signature initiatives — cap-and-trade and health-care reform — lie in ruins.
Desperate to explain away this scandalous state of affairs, liberal apologists haul out the old reliable from the Carter years: “America the Ungovernable.” So declared Newsweek. “Is America Ungovernable?” coyly asked The New Republic. Guess the answer.
The rage at the machine has produced the usual litany of systemic explanations. Special interests are too powerful. The Senate filibuster stymies social progress. A burdensome constitutional order prevents innovation. If only we could be more like China, pines Tom Friedman, waxing poetic about the efficiency of the Chinese authoritarian model and complaining that America can only flail about under its “two parties . . . with their duel-to-the-death paralysis.” The better thinkers, bewildered and furious that their president has not gotten his way, have developed a sudden disdain for our inherently incremental constitutional system.