After The Parliamentary Presidency

I’m just getting to this New York Times magazine article, “After the Imperial Presidency” (I usually only get to read the magazine after my wife’s had a week to read it and another week to do the crossword puzzle), and I found it both better and worse than I expected.

I was expecting to read about the rise of executive power in the Bush Years, which would probably have covered Gitmo, secret prisons, the Iraq War, etc., etc. And there was some of that, to be sure. But the article was actually about something else, something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, the rise of parliamentary-style democracy in America. Instead of a system where the branches of government check each other, we’re moving slowly towards a system where the branches coordinate when they’re held by the same party, and the parties oppose each other. This is a telling anecdote:

When [LBJ] was elevated to the vice presidency in 1961, he suggested to Senator Mike Mansfield, his successor as Senate majority leader, that he be permitted to continue presiding over the Democratic caucus. Mansfield initially agreed — but the rest of the caucus revolted. The vice president might be the ceremonial president of the Senate, they argued, but to empower him to attend their caucuses, let alone run them, would create a dangerous precedent.

By contrast, in recent years, you could set your watch by the arrival of Vice President Cheney’s motorcade on Capitol Hill for the Republican caucus’s weekly strategy sessions. He was at times known to bring Karl Rove with him as well. “You can imagine the amount of dissent that goes on with the two of them sitting there,” Leahy told me.

I have mixed feelings about the rise of parliamentary politics in America. In general I think it’s a bad thing, but it’s also sort of inevitable with the rise of the party system.

But what I really wanted to know, and what the article completely avoids (perhaps because it was likely written before the election), is whether or not any of that changes in an Obama administration, and why. Obama will have a relatively sizeable Democratic majority in both houses to work with. Will Joe Biden and Rahm Emmanuel show up on Capitol Hill for strategy sessions? I think the fact that Obama is filling his staff with congressional heavy-hitters (Emmanuel, Daschle, Schiliro) speaks volumes on this score. On the other hand, the Democrats are by nature more of a coalition, as the Prof once wrote, so the coordination will probably be less intense (cue Will Rogers quote).

At any rate, the dynamic between Obama and the Democratic congress will be fun to watch.