An Innocent in America
It's been quite a while since I came to this country as a refugee. Over the ensuing decades, I have found my niche in American society; come to appreciate football as the greatest game of all; inured myself to some of the more unsavory aspects of the local culture (and no, try as I might, I have not been able to convince myself that rap is music); and learned enough about America to confidently consider myself a knowledgeable citizen of this great country. Still I just can't fathom certain things about America -- or rather about American political attitudes. Chalk it up to a foreigner's innocence.
My chief conundrum is why Americans put up with their political system and sometimes even consider it the best in the world. Are they blind? Can't they see it just doesn't -- and cannot -- work? Consider: A president is elected. The only time when he can truly feel as a head of state is immediately after his electoral triumph, before he takes the oath of office, when he takes a victory lap, looking and sounding presidential and soaking in the public's admiration. But no sooner does he move into the White House than the honeymoon abruptly ends: he is no longer the president. He is now a candidate running for reelection.
From day one, everything he does is primarily political, dictated by the exigencies of his reelection campaign. A Republican president is more constrained because the leftist press watches him eagle-eyed, pouncing on his slightest faux pas. But a Democrat has a totally free hand; he can do as he pleases. The press proclaims that what's good for the president is good for America and darkly intimates that Republican opposition to anything the president does is unpatriotic, maybe even subversive, and of course racist if the president's name is Barack Obama.
And so most of the president's time in office is consumed by politicking, not policy-making. He tirelessly stomps around the country, thinking up the thinnest of pretexts to pass his political jaunts off as "the people's business" and thus charge we the people for his campaigning. He raises money virtually nonstop; mollycoddles his more important donors; rewards his supporters and punishes the opposition (if he is a Democrat, it's OK to call the Republicans "the enemy"; if a Republican, the permissible term for the Democrats, even such execrable specimens as Alan Grayson or Anthony Weiner, is "our friends across the aisle")...in short, does everything a campaigner is supposed to do -- to the detriment of his direct duties and at untold expense to the national treasury. If the president likes traveling abroad, he can indulge his passion in style, reveling in luxury and providing free entertainment, courtesy of the American taxpayer, to hundreds of his "closest friends." (But usually foreign travel comes in his second term, after the president's domestic agenda fails -- as it almost invariably does -- and he willy-nilly has to turn to foreign policy which the public cares about comparatively little and understands even less.)
All the while the president draws his sizeable salary which he is not in a position to spend, as all his expenses are covered by the taxpayers. Then comes the election campaign proper, during which the president, for obvious reasons, travels practically full-time and spends even less time in Washington, D.C. Finally the election comes and, assuming the president is reelected, a curious thing happens: on Day One of his second term, the next election cycle kicks in, everybody forgets about the existence of the president, and feverish speculation about the prospective candidates from both parties becomes the order of the day.
And so the president turns into a "lame duck"; forgotten and forlorn, he aimlessly roams the corridors of the White House, trying to find something to occupy his time, if Bill Clinton's experience is a guide. If Barack Obama is reelected, he will probably indulge full-bore his passion for dolce far niente ("sweet leisure," Italian for his favorite pastime), playing golf, watching sports on TV, and partying with Hollywood and Motown celebrities. But no matter what the second-termer does, the victory at the polls immediately makes him irrelevant. In a sense, an electoral defeat is even preferable because it gives the president something to do, as Bill Clinton's example showed: once past the distractions of his innumerable amorous scandals and impeachment, he spent his time preparing to move, tying up the loose ends of his reign, destroying incriminating papers, hitting the big donors for extra contributions to his Presidential Library Foundation, negotiating his future speaker's fees and publishing contract, thinking up childish pranks to torment his Republican successor, and frantically selling presidential pardons, while his better half looted the White House, hauling away furniture and artworks.
Are things any different on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue? Alas, no. Our esteemed representatives and senators follow the same general pattern. Of all the duties of their office, none is more important to them than raising money for their next reelection campaign, which takes up the lion's share of their time and energy. Then comes the time to gear up for the upcoming election, at least a year in advance, and the "servants of the people" switch into full campaign mode.
And if a legislator decides to run for president, then the campaign consumes the prospective candidate's time completely, to the exclusions of everything else. Sure, he or she might make it a point to fly back to Washington for important votes, but with little idea of what they are voting for or against. At least Bob Dole had the decency to retire from the Senate to run for president in 1996, but he was the exception rather than the rule.
Did it ever occur to Senators Obama, Clinton, or McCain in 2007/8 that they were paid to legislate, not to campaign? Why do the taxpayers tolerate the ridiculous situation when the people they have elected to represent them in Washington spend their time trying to perpetuate themselves in power rather than serve their constituents or their country? Or an even more ridiculous spectacle of an über-rich politician spending untold millions of his personal wealth to get elected only to start lobbying for a salary raise on the theory that to attract "worthy" people, you have to pay them commensurately?
The legislative process is often likened to sausage-making -- too stomach-turning to watch. If so, then the U.S. political sausage-makers must be almost perpetually on furlough or on strike, and it's a wonder of wonders that something does get done occasionally. The government is so designed as to render it practically impotent. How is it superior to, say, the British model, where the victorious party forms the government and rules (not reigns -- that's the Queen's prerogative) unobstructed for five years, unless it screws up so badly that it loses the confidence vote, whereupon the parliament is dissolved and a new snap election is immediately scheduled (it's called "going to the people")? And did I mention that the election campaign in the U.K. by law lasts just six weeks? Under such a system, the government is in a position to pursue the policies it ran on and actually do something real, while the people can judge the ruling party on its performance and fire it if it fails without waiting helplessly for the five-year term to drag interminably to its end.
The fact that the cabinet members are also MPs smooths somewhat the relations between the legislature and the executive, which in the U.S. can be quite rocky. Furthermore, in the U.K. each of the leading parties has a permanent executive team. The same people who take cabinet positions when their party wins the election constitute a shadow cabinet when it goes into opposition. Thus, the parties have trained and experienced teams ready to hit the ground running once in power.
Meanwhile in the U.S., each changing of the guard in Washington brings about a wholesale turnover in government and a protracted period of chaos. It takes a long time for the new people to get their sea legs even if they can handle their jobs -- which is not a given in a system where the ability to raise money for the victorious candidate is regarded as the highest qualification for office. Not surprisingly, power transition in the U.K. is generally smooth and a great deal of continuity is preserved, while in the U.S. a substantial chunk of the new administration's first term is consumed by an expedited boot camp, a crash orientation course for the new top bureaucrats while the country's business is put in abeyance.
So compared to the U.K., the American political system seems ridiculously cumbersome and ineffective. If anybody wanted to devise an effective way of shackling and incapacitating the U.S. government, they couldn't do a better job than the current system -- unless it was deliberately designed that way, that is. After all, the Founding Fathers had few illusions about the human nature and were highly suspicious of democracy, which many of them likened to ochlocracy -- mob rule. And so while deliberating on the Constitution they concentrated by and large on various ways of hamstringing power-hungry politicians. As James Madison suggested, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." In short, checks and balances. From the viewpoint of efficiency, such a setup is a recipe for political paralysis. But maybe that was exactly the Founders' objective in the first place. If so, they got exactly what they wanted.