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By Jay Cost

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America is Not Ungovernable

Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America's "political instability" was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed "obstructionist Republicans," "spineless Democrats," and an "incoherent public" for the problem.

Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.

Let's acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III's government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.

The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.

The President's two major initiatives - cap-and-trade and health care - have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That's a good thing.

It's not accurate to blame this on the Republicans. From Arlen Specter's defection to Scott Brown's swearing in, Democrats had total control over the policy-making process. The only recourse the Republicans had was the First Amendment. They used it well, but don't let it be said that the President lacked access to it. Given Mr. Obama's bully pulpit and his omnipresence on the national stage, his voice has been louder than anybody's. If Mr. Obama has lost the public debate to the beleaguered rump that is the congressional GOP, he has nobody to blame but himself.

It's not accurate to blame this on "spineless Democrats," i.e. rank-and-file legislators who balked at the various solutions offered by Mr. Obama. Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs - but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work - but in a situation where "spineless Democrats" clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well. One might argue that they should have shown some leadership - voted for unpopular bills because they were good for the country. But ask those thirty to forty House Democratic defectors on the health care, cap-and-trade, and jobs bills whether they thought the bills were good for the country, and you'll hear a different answer than the one Newsweek is quick to give.

It's not accurate to blame this on the people. This country is most certainly divided, but not deeply so. Consider, for instance, the enormous goodwill that greeted Mr. Obama upon his inauguration. It is not tenable to suggest that there was no way to turn that into a broad consensus for policy solutions.

The responsibility for the government's failure in the last year rests with President Obama. Two significant blunders stand out.

First, President Obama has installed Nancy Pelosi as de facto Prime Minister - giving her leave to dominate not only the House, but also the entire domestic policy agenda. The indefatigable Speaker Pelosi has taken advantage of the President's laissez-faire attitude by governing from the left.

That's not to say that the left has been happy with the domestic proposals that have come up for a vote. Instead, the point is that policy has consistently been built from the left - thanks in no small part to the very liberal chairs of key committees - with compromises made to win just enough centrist votes to get passage. On the jobs bill, the health care bill, and the cap-and-trade bill, the Democrats won only narrow victories due to mass defections on their own side. Almost all of these defections were from the center. Faced with a choice between losing a moderate or a liberal, the Speaker has consistently chosen to sacrifice the moderate.

It's easy to blame the Senate for inactivity - but the problem is the House. It has consistently passed legislation that is too far to the left for the Senate and the country. Ultimate responsibility rests with the President, whose expressed indifference toward policy details has allowed the more vigorous House Democrats, led by an extraordinarily vigorous Speaker, to dominate. That the President consistently praised the House and blamed the Senate in his State of the Union address suggests that he remains unaware of this problem.

The President's second major failing has been his stubborn insistence on comprehensive reforms. Perhaps this is due to his inexperience in the federal lawmaking process, or his extraordinary vanity, or both. Still, this has been a grave mistake. If the truly great Henry Clay could not pass the Compromise of 1850 through the Congress in a single package, what made Barack Obama think he could sign comprehensive energy and health care reforms?

President Obama's desire for comprehensive legislation seriously damaged the chances for bipartisanship, given his decision to let Nancy Pelosi and her allies write the bills. Republican "extremism" is an easy rhetorical foil - but when we're talking about Mike Castle and Olympia Snowe voting against the President, it fails to explain the full story. Bipartisanship implies legislators with different world views working together. The larger a bill's scope, the more likely it favors one worldview over another, and the less likely it will attract bipartisan support. With an extremely liberal Speaker and a supporting cast of left wing committee chairs running the process, comprehensive legislation was bound to favor heavily the liberal worldview. Even the most moderate of Republicans would always have trouble with that. In fact, thirty to forty House Democrats have defected on the President's key items, meaning that the bipartisan position has been opposition to President Obama. This has made it difficult for a centrist public to support reforms. With very limited information on specifics, the public took unanimous Republican and substantial moderate Democratic opposition as cues about the merits of the bills. Public opposition is what ultimately ended the Democratic supermajority - in Massachusetts, of all places.

Both of these failures get back to the idea that this country can only be led effectively when there is a broad coalition supporting her leaders. That requires those leaders to have a breadth of vision that this President has so far lacked. He has allowed a very liberal Speaker to lead the House too far to the left, and he has demanded comprehensive reforms that were destined to alienate a significant portion of the country.

He has been narrow, not broad. He has been partial, not post-partisan. He has been ideological, not pragmatic. No number of "eloquent" speeches can alter these facts. This is why his major initiatives have failed, why his net job approval has dropped 50 points in 12 months, and why he is substantially weaker now than he was a year ago.

This strategy might have made sense if the country was really in the midst of a "liberal moment." But it is not. While the President won a decisive victory in 2008, his congressional majority in both chambers depends entirely upon members whose constituents voted for John McCain. In fact, the President's election 16 months ago was one of the most polarizing in recent history. This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.

America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.

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-Jay Cost