When I started reading George Will’s column this morning, I thought I might finally be on board with a writer I’ve been criticizing much of late. Will goes after John McCain again, this time zeroing in on a very bad idea the candidate has floated.
McCain’s speech of May 15 in Columbus, Ohio, contained some promises that would be best forgotten if he becomes president–e.g., “I will hold weekly press conferences.” (Please, no!) The one that exercises Will, and it is arguably the worst of the lot, is this one: “I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.” Alas, Will opposes this for the wrong reason, and in doing so exposes the muddled thinking induced by his recently acquired prejudice against executive power.
Will is right that the reason “Question Time” works for the British and wouldn’t work here is that our system has a separation of powers and theirs lacks it. But he concludes that the breach of that separation that would occur with an American version of Question Time would redound to the benefit of the modern “plebiscitary presidency,” while “reducing Congress to a prop in a skit of president-centrism.” Recalling that George Washington delivered a personal “State of the Union” message to Congress, that Jefferson abandoned this for the written Annual Message, and that Woodrow Wilson revived the personal oratorical occasion in the modern era as part of his aggrandizement of the presidency, Will concludes that a presidential Question Time would have a similar effect, as “a spectacle that further miniaturizes Congress.”*
But this misses the very different natures of these two kinds of occasions. The State of the Union address is a solo act, a monologue punctuated by inarticulate roars and hisses from the assembled solons of Congress. But Question Time would be, as it is in London, a true colloquy, in which the president subjects himself to badgering, hectoring, grandstanding from congressional blowhards (think Joe Biden), lowering himself to being just one among many voices in the room, and thus harming one of the principal characteristics of the presidential office–the strength that comes from its unity.
The colloquy works in Britain without (usually) diminishing the stature of the prime minister, for a couple of reasons. First, he is a legislator, and comes before the body as first among equals in some sense. Second, he stands up in the chamber as prime minister solely because he represents the majority party and probably was instrumental in making it the majority. He can therefore count on that majority’s support on all important questions (again, usually), and depend on his partisans to bray more loudly than the opposition. Britain’s is a “party government,” which, despite the ambitions of Woodrow Wilson and many political scientists who followed him, America’s system has never been. Even when both houses of Congress are controlled by the president’s party, there is no true “party government” here. And when the opposition party controls the legislature, the executive would be a fool to come before it for any form of freewheeling colloquy. That is Congress’s playing field, and the president would be best advised to stay off that turf.
There is a more instructive example from George Washington’s presidency that proves the point opposite to Will’s. Once, in his first term as president, Washington sat with the Senate in order to seek its advice and consent on a treaty with the Creek Indians. After two days of blather and boredom, with no control over the proceedings and feeling more undignified by the minute, Washington left, never to return for such a ghastly adventure. Careful to attend to his office’s authority and effectiveness–which were reinforced by its dignified aloofness from the folderol of congressional debate–Washington understood something that has so far escaped John McCain. More to the point, it entirely escapes George Will, who in his current frame of mind (sometimes seeming like he’s channeling the more dubious arguments of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Imperial Presidency), ought actually to be for this terrible idea, since it would cut the presidency down to size.
Not that there isn’t something to worry about in the Wilsonian project. But George Will is completely off the rails on this subject. Much better insight can be found in a review essay by the indispensable Michael Uhlmann in the latest Claremont Review of Books (so far viewable only by subscribers), where Will might learn to distinguish between Alexander Hamilton’s energetic executive (good) and Woodrow Wilson’s plebiscitary presidency (bad).
*Academic aside: Will relies in part on the work of Jeffrey K. Tulis, whose 1987 book The Rhetorical Presidency is already something of a classic. As good as it is, though, Tulis’s book overstates its case, and should be balanced by reading David K. Nichols’s 1994 book The Myth of the Modern Presidency.