Last week’s bipartisan health care summit was fascinating. It was the second time in as many months that the President ran a veritable session of parliament—in America.
Americans saw the president, the chief executive, the embodiment of a distinct branch of government, dishing barbs with members of congress and serving as chief moderator of the legislative branch.
If you grew up in America this was confusing. It was like having your loyalty to an airline suddenly rewarded with Frequent Flyer Kilometers or going to the grocery store for a gallon of milk, only to see the grocer measure out 3.79 liters. For the student of American history, the scene was enough to make you get off the couch, cross the room and whack the top of your television set, hoping to cure it of this British signal. You switched off the power, re-read the operating manual that is our Constitution, and tuned back in hoping to again find three distinct branches of government.
But no, there they still were: the American Parliament and Prime Minister Obama.
Newspapers didn’t seem to notice. In the sports reporting that today passes for political coverage, newspapers fixated on unearthing a winner. Depending upon which you read, either the president exposed Republicans as the “Party of No,” or the Republicans rejected the expensive habit of a health care pusher whose slogan seems to be: “Just Say Yes.”
One feels bad for young Americans who are formulating early impressions of government. Presidents don’t do this. They aren’t the arbiters of Congress. Whatever one’s political leanings, whichever ideological aphrodisiac seduces you into the voting booth, the one constant throughout the ages has been that the president is the president and the Congress are all of those other people.
The president isn’t a CEO. He isn’t a new age professor. And, with very good reason, the president has never taken on the airs of a prime minister.
Our government evolved out of the many failures of the parliamentary system. Parliaments are relics of the 13th century, originally designed as a solution to the king as absolute ruler. They are an echo of an age lacking in true separation of powers. Over the past eight centuries, parliament has evolved, but parliaments remain an early evolutionary step in fostering democratic institutions. They are still rather second-rate: the “Windows 95” of governmental systems.
The United States is a republic with good reason. The nobility of our country is found in its protections of the minority. It is purposely inconvenient to ideologues and ambitious radicals. Our Republic is a cooling mechanism, a holding tank for the Saturday-night drunks found in every political establishment.
The system has been working. It worked in past administrations and it is working today: frustrating politicians who fail to gain broad support for their initiatives. But there is a danger here and we are already seeing its effects. The longer the debate rages over health care reform, the more desperate its champions become. That desperation is fostering a fanaticism for passing a bill at any cost—resulting in a hunt for loopholes and holding bizarre quasi-parliamentary sessions like we just witnessed.
Our elected officials have the responsibility to resist the impulse to react to their own desperation. Statesmanship isn’t about finding loopholes or forcing change at any cost—particularly when the belief in that cost is not shared by the people who must pay for it. The great statesmen, the ones who remain in the wax museum of our collective nostalgia, understood that the better part of power is knowing when not to use it.
And yet in these much vaunted “teachable moments” Washington seems to be conveying the saddest lesson of all: in this hyper-communicative age without reason and context, you don’t have to go about the trouble of changing the Constitution or adhering to its rules, when you can simply ignore it.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.