Bench Memos

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Yes, We Have Gone Bananas


In today’s Washington Post, Bush Derangement Syndrome claims another victim.  Robert Dallek, crafter of great biographical doorstops, has hit upon the fabulous idea of amending the U.S. Constitution to enable the plebiscitary recall of presidents and vice presidents, provided 60% of each house of Congress wants to oust them and a simple majority of the electorate agrees.  If both the president and vice president are removed (“immediately,” says Dallek), the Speaker of the House would become president.

If it were Dallek’s intention to transform the United States into a banana republic, or to introduce Hugo-Chavezismo into American politics, he could hardly have hit upon a better idea.  Sensible people will reject it out of hand.  But it proceeds from an impatience with ordinary politics, and a contempt for (or ignorance of) the principles of our constitutional order, that ought to receive a little attention. 

Dallek starts his argument this way: “There are good reasons to see [George W. Bush] as a failed president whose remaining time in office will be unproductive at best and destructive to the country’s well-being at worst.”  He supplies exactly none of these “good reasons,” but that is not my point here.  What this all-worked-up indignation amounts to is Dallek saying “I dislike George Bush and his policies, and so do a lot of other people.”  But the American presidency is not a plebiscitary office, and the commonplace observation that sometimes a lot of people have a low opinion of their president (a phenomenon often seen late in a president’s term) hardly amounts to a reason to convert it into one.

Bush is a “failed president,” says Dallek.  Sometimes it seems that a memo has gone around Washington encouraging people to say this as often as possible, in order to gin up a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But an alleged historian such as Dallek ought to know that the answer to the question, “Is sitting President X a success or a failure?” is almost always, “It’s too soon to tell.”  I say almost always because this rule has the well-known James Buchanan-Jimmy Carter Exceptions. 

But again, the point is not to argue whether Bush belongs in that exceptional category, of the president known to be a failure before any historical hindsight has become possible.  The point is that our Constitution, with its fixed electoral rhythms, is quite indifferent to the question of a president’s (or senator’s, or representative’s) popularity with his constituents at any other time than at the moment of an election in which he is eligible for reelection and seeks it.  This is not a defect of the Constitution, but a virtue.  Elected officials under our system are given time to use their judgment, and constitutional authority to employ political power according to their own judgment, because the framers of the Constitution thought it a bad idea to engage in the ad-hockery of returning to the well of public opinion too often.  The public’s judgment of public policy is more likely to be deficient, more often, than the judgment of those whom we elect to serve us.  That’s why we elected them.  (And this is not even to raise the obvious additional objection to Dallek’s scheme, that it is an invitation to make partisan politics more ruthless and extreme than it already is.) 

If we get buyer’s remorse, we have regularly scheduled opportunities to register that considered judgment.  We know when those opportunities appear on the calendar.  Robert Dallek would like to institutionalize the exercise of ill-considered judgment–the “sudden breese of passion” against which Alexander Hamilton warned us in Federalist No. 71.  He is sanguine that the recall power will only be used in the exceptional and extreme cases.  But his opinion on this is tainted by the fact that he believes such a case is before his eyes right now.  A Constitution should never be amended in anger (see: 22nd Amendment), and it should be written to provide for the normal practices of ordinary politics–not to provide for the abnormalization of the normal.

Once again, we may be properly grateful to the framers for having made the Constitution difficult to amend.


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