Obama, tea party don't get separation of powers

WASHINGTON — Much is wrong with Washington these days, including much of what is said about what is wrong. Many Americans say there is "too much politics" in Washington. Actually, there is too little. Barack Obama deplores "politics as usual" here. But recently Washington has been tumultuous because politics, as the Framers understood it, has disintegrated. Obama has been complicit in this collapse.

His self-regard, the scale of which has a certain grandeur, reinforces progressivism's celebration of untrammeled executive power and its consequent disparagement of legislative bargaining. This is why Obamacare passed without a single vote from the opposition party — and why it remains, as analyst Michael Barone says, the most divisive legislation since the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Obama and his tea-party adversaries have something important in common — disdain for the practice of politics within the Framers' institutional architecture. He and they should read Jonathan Rauch's "Rescuing Compromise" in National Affairs quarterly.

"Politicians," Rauch notes, "like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to." So Madison created a constitutional regime that by its structure created competing power centers and deprived any of them of the power to impose its will on the others.

The Madisonian system, Rauch says, is both intricate and dynamic: "Absent a rare (and usually unsustainable) supermajority, there is simply not much that any single faction, interest, or branch of government can do. Effective action in this system is nothing but a series of forced compromises."

Rep. Tom Cole, who represents southwest Oklahoma and has a Ph.D. in British history and studied at the University of London, says some of his colleagues in the House of Representatives "think they are in the House of Commons." That is, they have not accepted the fact that, in the Madisonian system, legislative and executive powers are separated.

By this separation, Rauch writes, Madison built "constant adjustment into the system." His Constitution is a "dynamic political mechanism" under which no faction ever prevails with finality. This is because there is no finality:

"Forcing actors to bargain and collaborate slows precipitous change while constantly making negotiators adjust their positions. ... The requirement to bargain and find allies provides new ideas and entrants with paths into politics and ways to shake up the status quo. But that same requirement prevents upheaval by ensuring that no one actor can seize control, at least not for long."

Obama, who aspires to be Washington's single actor, has said of his signature achievement: "I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn't have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that's not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people."

Obama wanted something simple rather than a product of Madisonian complexity. He wanted something elegantly unblemished by "any" messy legislative involvement, other than Congress' tug of the forelock at final approval. It is, Obama thinks, unfortunate that he had to talk to many people.

He and some of his tea-party adversaries share an impatience with Madisonian politics, which requires patience. The tea party's reaffirmation of Madison's limited government project is valuable. Now, it must decide if it wants to practice politics.

Rauch hopes there will be "an intellectual effort to advance a principled, positive, patriotic case for compromise, especially on the right." He warns that Republicans, by their obsessions with ideological purity and fiscal policy, "have veered in the direction of becoming a conservative interest group, when what the country needs is a conservative party."

A party is concerned with power, understood as the ability to achieve intended effects. A bull in a china shop has consequences, but not power, because the bull cannot translate intelligent intentions into achievements. The tea party has a choice to make. It can patiently try to become the beating heart of a durable party, which understands this: In Madisonian politics, all progress is incremental. Or it can be a raging bull, and soon a mere memory, remembered only for having broken a lot of china.

Conservatives who prefer politics over the futility of intransigent gestures in Madison's compromise-forcing system will regret the promise the tea party forfeited, but will not regret that, after the forfeiture, it faded away.

George Will, who writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, can be reached by email at georgewill@washpost.com.

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spangwurfelt wrote on October 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Poor George. The GOP shot itself right between the eyes using the Tea Party as a bullet, their poll standings have never been worse, and yet Will has to pretend this is a problem of both sides.

Why? Because he cannot admit what obvious - the GOP didn't go off the deep end because Obama pushed them there, but because the Tea Party dragged them there.

But the day George Will doesn't basically the Democrats for Republican mistakes, even ones as cataclysmic as the shuthdown, is the day he stops being George Will.

bluegrass wrote on October 23, 2013 at 10:10 am

So now the shutdown was cataclysmic?  Perhaps in your mind, a cataclysm occurred.  The only effect I saw was that a few people I know got a couple of weeks of paid vacation, and a few WWII Vets got another taste of what if felt like tear down some walls in the name of freedom.  I suppose that's what passes for a cataclysm these days.  I know, I know, someone made up a number of $24 billion was lost in the economy.  Even if one believes this number which is impossible to prove, consider that is roughly the the amount of money Americans spent on dog food last year.  

Will writes about a "party," which should be concerned with power, understood as the ability to achieve intended effects.  The loss of power by the Republican Party was born from 8 years of big government expansion, endless wars, and profligate spending by the Bush administration, and the rise of the Tea Party started at the end of his second term.  The Tea Party, that is to say, the true conservative base of the Republican Party, is the only reason that John Boehner holds a gavel today.  I understand what Will is saying, he is saying we should all just play along and compromise, which is fine.  Great.  The only problem is that Obama and Reid are kicking the current Republican leader's butts all over the beach, and they don't have to compromise because they know they can just continue to kick sand in our faces.  Think of it this way, a fox does not compromise with a rabbit.  A fox just eats it for dinner, leaves a pile of fur, and moves on to the next rabbit.