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Political Science 101: the woes of the US presidential system

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Political Science 101: the woes of the U.S. presidential system
By Steven Hill

The Bush administration seems to be reeling from policy failure to scandal.
Key administration officials have resigned, President Bush's approval
ratings are in the high 20s, with support dwindling even among Republicans
and high-ranking military officers. Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who
ran Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign has said, "The country
doesn't believe George W. Bush, it doesn't trust him, and with 19 months to
go it's only going to get worse."

The government of George W. Bush clearly has "fallen," in the classic
parliamentary sense. President Bush is the lamest of ducks. He is in Richard Nixon territory.

Yet our presidential system doesn't have a mechanism to grapple with this. The next election is still a long ways off. The United States is living
through the worst aspects of our presidential system, which can produce lame duck presidents due to the rigid mechanism for triggering elections. In our presidential system, elections are held every four years on a regular schedule, regardless of the incumbent's unpopularity between elections.

If instead of our presidential system we used a parliamentary system like in
Canada or the United Kingdom, when the prime minister's support falls below
a sufficient level, several things can happen responding to the changed
landscape, including a call for early elections.

First, the prime minister can try forming a new government, acknowledging
the shifting tide -- that is what Tony Blair recently did, paving the way
for his Labour Party ally Gordon Brown to take over as prime minister. But
if there is still a dramatic lack of support, the government falls and new
elections are called. Voters don't have to wait many long months, perhaps
years, before choosing a new government.

But in our presidential system, even though President Bush lost his
legislative majority when the Democrats retook Congress in 2006, he remains
in office. Even though his government essentially has fallen, he remains
propped up by pomp and ceremony.

Which points to another key difference in a parliamentary system. The prime
minister is not elected directly by the voters, but rather is the top leader
of the political party or parties holding a legislative majority. This
ensures that the executive and legislative branches mostly move in synch.

But in our system the president is elected by popular vote within each
and the winner is unrelated to which political party controls Congress. It's
not unusual for one party to control the presidency and another to control
Congress. Besides President Bush, Presidents Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan and
Nixon all had congressional majorities led by the opposite party.

This kind of "split government" has its pros and cons. Sometimes it can lead
to a degree of healthy compromise, but over the last 13 years mostly it has
produced gridlock. Many factors determine whether you get compromise or
gridlock, but unquestionably what we have now is gridlock, not only on Iraq
but on many pressing issues including global climate change, health care,
pension reform, immigration, rising inequality and more.

Americans are going to have to fasten our seat belts and get ready to suffer
through yet another nightmare of paralyzed government. The late 1990s saw a
similar period, when President Bill Clinton and a GOP Congress faced off in
a kind of death march while the rest of the country watched with horror.
Instead of the nation's business being decided by elections, it was gang
tackled by relentless committee investigations and ultimately an impeachment

There are pros and cons to both our presidential system and a parliamentary
system, but right now the U.S. is living through the worst downsides of our
presidential system, namely lame ducks and gridlocked government.

Ironically, two centuries ago the founders of our Constitution came very
close to creating a parliamentary form of government, but rejected it during
the final days of the Constitutional Convention. One wonders how many times
since the founders have rolled over in their graves over that fateful

Certainly there are downsides to a parliamentary system, such as a
possibility of constantly collapsing governments. The usual example is
Italy, which has had dozens of governments in the post-World War II period,
though Italy is an extreme example and most parliamentary nations have not
suffered such a fate.

Yet on balance, elections are a better way to decide the nation's political
leadership and policy direction. That is preferable to the partisan mischief
unleashed by lame ducks and gridlocked politics while the nation awaits the
next election.

Steven Hill is director of the New America Foundation's political reform
program and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy"
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Steven Hill is director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation (www.NewAmerica.net) and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (www.10steps.net)
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