Meanwhile, elsewhere in whimsy the nice folks at Foreign Policy asked me to write a piece about Prince William’s engagement. Somehow this ended up with another modest proposal: the United States should ditch the Presidency, join the Commonwealth and become a parliamentary democracy. You know, like Canada.
They have the trappings of royalty already, but none of the benefits:
Last year, Peggy Noonan, the American conservative commentator and former presidential speechwriter, complained that President Barack Obama lacked some of the presence that a good head of state requires. She imagines "a good president as sitting at the big desk and reaching out with his long arms and holding on to the left, and holding on to the right, and trying mightily to hold it together, letting neither spin out of control, holding on for dear life. I wish we were seeing that. I don’t think we are."
Americans tempted to scoff at the gushing nonsense produced by the British press this week should attend to Noonan’s words. It is one thing to be dazzled by quasi-mystical notions of the thread of royalty stretching back through the centuries; quite another to wrap a mere politician — all too human flesh and all — in such purpled prose. A politician is merely a politician, here today and tossed out tomorrow. The monarch, however, is a reassuring and enduring symbol whose presence is inoffensive at worst and more often comforting. The American system simply isn’t set up to produce the kind of figure that Noonan longs for.
If the president must be comforter-in-chief and chief executive, is it any wonder that the office is bedeviled by a kind of institutional schizophrenia? The president must, simultaneously, be the leader of his party and a kindly, bipartisan father figure whose stately presence in the White House reassures and embodies the great republic. With all that, the wonder of the American presidency is not that it is [not*] done well but that it is done at all.
Since Congressional elections increasingly resemble parliamentary elections, the tensions in the US system aren’t disappearing any time soon. As Bagehot put it more than a century ago:
"The executive is crippled by not getting the laws it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of which others (and not itself) will suffer the effects."
This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world and, again, I’m sometimes surprised that Washington works as well as it does. But there’s something to it anyway.
Obviously tongue-in-cheek suggestions that Brenda reign from sea to shining sea below the 49th parallel won’t go anywhere, but it would be a good thing if the President weren’t elevated to quasi-Royal status.
Anyway, the whole thing is here.
*An unfortunate lapse left this useful "not" out of the original piece. My fault, mainly.
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