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Twilight for Bush and Blair

Dana Millbank in Friday"s Washington Post described the meltdown of the budget reconciliation process on both the House and Senate sides using a metaphor that, back in the day, would have been off limits:

On either end of the Capitol, insurgents brought the legislative process to a halt, forcing GOP leaders in the House and Senate to shelve prized tax and spending cuts. The explosions went off almost simultaneously, as if they had been synchronized -- and authorities blamed both attacks on Republican moderates.

There was a third explosion, almost simultaneous, in another capitol. In London, parliament rejected Tony Blair's proposal to expand police powers to fight terrorism, the first loss for Blair in eight years and apparently something very close to a fatal blow to his government. Blair biographer Philip Stephens notes in today's Financial Times that Blair "has reached, as close allies are now acknowledging, the dusk of his premiership."

It's interesting to look at these two setbacks side-by-side, just as a question of governance.

A standard critique of Blair in the U.K., repeated in Stephens' colunm, is that he has brought a "presidential" style of leadership to the office. That's partly a dig at his alliances with Clinton and Bush, and his American-style press operation, but it really means that he aspired to be a national leader based on his personal vision and charisma rather than the leader of a party with a coherent platform. As Stephens puts it, "in his effort to build a new social democratic settlement, Mr. Blair shows still greater disdain for Labour ideology than [Margaret Thatcher had] for Tory tradition."

Under Bush in the U.S., on the other hand, we have moved toward something that looks a lot more like parliamentary government, in which the ruling party moves with a single voice and when it fails to do so, the whole order is at risk. If Blair is more national leader than party leader, Bush has styled himself as much more the leader of an ideologically unified majority party than any American president in decades, including those such as LBJ who had solid congressional majorities. He is the first president, for example, to handpick the Senate majority leader.

Ironically, something more like parliamentary government was a goal of "reformers" in the U.S. system for decades, especially in the postwar years when members of Congress of the president's own party continually blocked active, progressive leadership, especially on civil rights. Strong and ideologically coherent parties with a strong president at the helm were thought to be preferable for progress than the sclerotic system of four parties (James McGregor Burns broke each party into a conservative congressional wing and a more liberal presidential wing) and deep bias toward inaction.

The budget reconciliation process that broke down yesterday in both Houses is very much a product of that reform impulse. Designed in 1974 to force congressional committees to make big choices about taxes and entitlement spending, it has been used by presidents Reagan in 1981 and Clinton in 1993 to force dramatic reorderings of priorities that would have been impossible earlier. Today the process has been egregiously abused, simply to avoid the rule of unlimited debate and 60 votes for cloture in the Senate. The more that key choices such as oil drilling in ANWR, which go well beyond the budget, are moved through this one-party process, the more "parliamentary" our system becomes.

The phenomenon of parliamentary democracies that surely seems weirdest to an American is the fact that a single loss can bring down a government. We are accustomed to having our "accountability moments" at regularly scheduled intervals, with all sorts of congressional victories and defeats in between. And there's something to be said for that. A president can be daring, can try to push Congress in certain directions, and can win some or lose some, get up off the mat and come right back and try again. Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had been prime minister rather than president. Rather than eight consecutive years in office, he would have been like one of those prime ministers who comes in and out of power several times, losing confidence votes, dissolving governments, and then forming new ones on new coalitions.

A great deal of Bush/Rove/DeLay's success over the past five years has come from pushing through party-line votes as if they were confidence votes in a parliamentary system. Many of the votes pushed through with massive arm-twisting and unprecedented procedures, such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2003 tax bill, were sold on the basis that the president needs the victory. You may not think this is good policy, wavering Republicans were told, but if the president wins, he gets reelected and we all win; we lose, and our whole edifice of power collapses.

And just as in a parliamentary system, that works until it stops working. And when it stops working, the government is finished. After reelection, the confidence vote argument lost some steam. Seeing Bush as a burden in 2006 rather than an asset for reelection, it loses still more. Having chosen to govern as a party, rather than national, leader, Bush has few of the resources that other presidents have had to salvage themselves, and the same goes for the Republican leadership in Congress.

And thus, Bush and Blair arrived this week at the same place, moving in opposite directions. The parliamentarian who governed as a president and the president who brought one-party parliamentary government to the U.S. have simultaneously reaced "the dusk" of their governments.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Brilliant analysis, elegantly presented.

Posted by: Judith Gran | Nov 11, 2005 1:14:45 PM

Agreed. Mark seems to have a clearer grasp on this than anyone I've read yet, in either the corporate media or the blogs.

One thing that strikes me is that the collapse of the GOP's quasi-parliamentary system is creating a huge power vacuum in Congress, at least until the mid-terms. Mark postulated a few weeks ago that when control of the congressional agenda shifts, it often happens BEFORE a new majority takes power -- as in 1994, when the Republicans were able to derail health care reform and turn the debate to the "process" issues in the Contract On America, even before their November blowout. But I don't see signs yet that the same thing is happening in reverse, although maybe it's just too early.

Here's a question, though: If the Dems do well next year, but not quite well enough to actually capture the House, what are the chances that they might be able to form a working coalition with the GOP Northeastern moderates, just as the Republicans were able to do -- at least on bugget issues -- with the Southern "Blue Dogs" in 1980-82?

Posted by: billmon | Nov 11, 2005 8:00:21 PM

I guess my question would be why Bush would care about any of this -- miniscule cuts to Medicaid and Food Stamps, even drilling in ANWR -- very small beer, n'est-ce pas?

Second term administrations (something parliamentary democracies don't have) live and die on their foreign policy successes and failures.

Wasn't Burns writing pretty much exclusively about Congress -- Reid and Cannon -- and not about the Presidency?

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Nov 12, 2005 1:28:33 AM

Er. That would be "Reid" as in Thomas B. Reed, a past Speaker often called "Czar" Reed.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Nov 12, 2005 1:33:05 AM

Hey Mark, did you notice that Open Source Media is giving your name as 'Mike Schmitt' in their front-page blurb? Might want to get that fixed.

Posted by: neil | Nov 18, 2005 10:16:53 AM