The Agenda

Shrinking the Presidency, or Ezra’s First Column

At least a decade ago, I read an essay in TNR by Michael Lind attacking the imperial presidency, and calling for a restoration of the framers’ vision of the president as a nonpartisan chief magistrate. I found it very convincing. One of the reasons we don’t directly elect the president by popular vote in our constitutional system is that it would give disturb the delicate balance between the branches. As we’ve moved in the direction of a more plebiscitary democracy, that balance has steadily come undone. 

This came to mind as I read Ezra Klein’s excellent first column for Newsweek. Unlike most columns, Ezra actually introduces new information and a new way of thinking about gridlock. He suggests that presidents should do their best to stay out of the legislative fray.

According to data gathered by the political scientist Frances Lee, when the president—not this president in particular but any president—decides to take a position on an issue, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. If we’re talking about health, labor, defense, or immigration policy, the chances that Democrats and Republicans will stay in their separate corners increase by 20 to 30 percent. On foreign aid and international affairs, the likelihood of a party-line vote increases by more than 65 percent.

Ezra then advances a cynical but not implausible interpretation of why this might be true.

The president is the leader of his party, and the other party can’t win unless the public sours on the president. That’s not going to happen if the opposition routinely hands him accomplishments. To get an idea of the cost of cooperation, imagine that the guy in the cubicle next to you is not only competing with you for a promotion but might also lose his job if the boss likes your work. Think he’s going to sing your praises at the next staff meeting?

With this dynamic in mind, Ezra correctly suggests that the bipartisan health summit will most likely prove a dud. (Keith Hennessey has written a very smart post gaming the political possibilities for the president and for congressional Republicans.)

The more that health-care reform is associated with the president, the less likely it is that any Republican will support it. Doing so would be tantamount to throwing the next election.

It’s at this point that Ezra says something I don’t entirely agree with:

This leaves us with two choices going forward: either we’re going to have to insist that the polarizing president retreats to a more modest role in the legislative process—unlikely, given our evident preference for presidential leadership and our distaste for Congress—or we’re going to have to change the process so that the majority can govern successfully even when it’s not in the minority’s interest to let them do so.

Shouldn’t we think seriously about rethinking our preference for presidential leadership in domestic policy? I understand the case for a strong executive in foreign policy. In domestic policy, I wonder if we’d be better served by a president who plays a more hands-off role.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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