About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« A Real Race on the Dem Side? | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | An Impediment to Paul? »

The Awful Task of Governance

There is a strange tension in the American political party. It strives to achieve a governing majority. That is its goal. But a governing majority is nothing but a hassle. It cannot accomplish much more than half measures, watered-down versions of what it promised, or symbolic gestures that change nothing at all. Eventually, its supporters catch on to this impotence, and they come to loathe it, decrying its members as dime-a-dozen politicians who squandered the public trust. So, I can't help but ask: why bother?

Of course, like a salmon swimming upstream, the party does bother. It works tirelessly to acquire 218 Reps or 51 Senators, even though it knows (or it should know) what awaits it upon "victory." And what awaits the party is one of the inevitable features of our system: it thwarts, stymies, and frustrates governing majorities. It was designed to do exactly that. Think about all of the various idiosyncrasies of our system that you first learned in eighth grade. The filibuster, the bicameral legislature, the tripartite government, federalism, the Connecticut Compromise, and so on. None of them are accidental. They all combine to make it excruciatingly difficult for the majority to accomplish anything of lasting substance. All of these have the effect of dispersing power.

The function of the political party is to concentrate power just enough so that the government can actually work. This is one reason why all of the original Framers ended up as party men. When it came time to solve the first problems of the young republic - it was soon discovered that a long-term coalition, built around a few basic principles, was a necessary expedient to coordinate activity across our very diverse government. What was needed was some kind of centripetal force in our system to collect at least some of the power that the Constitution disperses. Without such a force, our system would do little more than enforce the status quo. Thus, the party caucus was born. This remains the job of the political party to this day: to concentrate power by coordinating the actions of governmental agents with similar views.

But, unlike in other countries, our parties are, in a sense, working against our Constitution. As I said, the parties collect what the Constitution has dispersed. This means they must find a way to govern despite all of the impediments put in place to do so. The net result is a party whose power is accordingly diminished. Add five to zero, and you get five. Add five to negative three, and you get only two. That is the difference between the American system and other systems of democratic government.

A real problem for the party is that its campaign rhetoric never seems to match what it is actually capable of doing once it gets its hands on the majority. Every cycle, Democrats and Republicans promise all sorts of things that they cannot possibly deliver because the parties are simply not powerful enough to deliver them. This is a problem that the Democrats have been having in this Congress, as the Wall Street Journal observed today:

The way in which Senate Democrats wavered and then consented to the confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general reflects the party's broader struggle to make headway on its national-security agenda, despite President Bush's unpopularity.

On questions such as Mr. Mukasey's stance on waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the war in Iraq, Democrats have been stymied by Republicans in Congress and the White House. That has sparked frustration among supporters, especially those on the left, who anticipated that last year's congressional takeover would force some policy changes.

These dashed expectations are one reason polls give Congress an approval rating lower than Mr. Bush's. The difficulties faced by Democrats on these issues look certain to complicate the party's bid to expand House and Senate majorities and regain the White House in 2008, a wartime election in which national security will be a major issue.

Democrats acknowledge the difficulty in speaking up for civil liberties while maintaining a tough stand on homeland security and terrorism.

Welcome to American governance, Democrats. It's one of the most frustrating jobs you can have. You are running a system whose designers intended to thwart you. And so, even though you have the majority, and you face a president whose numbers have been in the gutter for more than two years, you still cannot seem to do what you want to do.

This follows quite logically from the Madisonian design. Power is dispersed in our government so that no single faction, even if it is a majority (e.g. the liberal Democrats), can achieve its policy goals if those goals are "narrow." The only way these goals can be achieved is if a broad coalition, comprised of multiple factions (e.g. the liberal Democrats, the moderate Democrats, and the moderate Republicans), accept these goals and coordinate their actions to implement them. In this way, no faction can impose its will on another faction unduly - and true republican government is thereby preserved.

Most people look at articles like the one in today's Wall Street Journal, and ask, "Why can't they just get things done?" This is the answer: "James Madison didn't want them to!" Our system is designed to keep "things" from getting done. It's all right there in Federalist #10 and #51. They are the key to understanding the way our government works. If you can accept Madison's penchant for the run-on sentence - you'll find that these two documents answer most of your questions.

A question that has been on my mind in recent months is the following. Presumably, politicians know that they cannot get things done in our system. So why is it that, during the electoral campaign, they make promises that they know they cannot keep? I have sketched out some answers to this question - and in the next few days or so, I'll offer my thoughts on this blog.

-Jay Cost