Friday, May 27, 2005

George W: America's First Prime Minister

The Washington Post published an article today on the centralization of political power in the Bush presidency. Where the Bush White House has focused authority among small circles of senior staff, the Republican leadership in Congress has turned committee chairs into little more than errand boys for the party agenda. The President, Dick Cheney, and Tom DeLay have increased their leverage because they and their allies control vast amounts of campaign money and have the support of grass roots right-wingers all over the country. As a result, the Republicans have achieved a concentration of power that Richard Nixon could only dream of. I suspect that the trend toward centralization will not last much longer than Bush's second term. Bush and Cheney will definitely be gone after 2008 and Tom DeLay will probably be cast aside as he becomes more of a liability. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the significance of the trend toward stronger centralization in the Bush administration. Essentially, Bush is changing the role of the American President. According to Richard Neustadt and every political scientist who followed Neustadt, the American presidency is an institution of persuasion. Employing their stature as the only nationally elected official, presidents are able to be effective because they "persuade" other institutions to go along with them. However, by undermining the independence of business lobbies (K Street Project), cabinet officers, civil service bureaucrats, committee chairs, and ultimately the courts, the Bush administration is trying to govern without having to "persuade" other institutions to accept his policies. What Bush wants instead is for the whole governing apparatus to be united in enacting the policy preferences of the activist right-wing minority in the Republican Party. In other words, Bush and his allies are transforming the American "presidential" system with its many independent power bases into a "parliamentary system" where elected governments are able to enact their programs relatively unopposed. Bush has stated that his "moment of accountability" was the election of 2004. Just so. In parliamentary systems, elections are the primary check on the performance of any government. If a government is popular and its programs are successful, it will be re-elected with a majority in parliament and will continue implementing its programs. If a government is defeated, then the other party gets to implement its programs through its majority. Of course, the President and Congress run separately in the United States, but the post-Gingrich Republicans have "nationalized" Congressional elections to such an extent that we can almost talk about members of the House and Senate running on the same "ticket" as a party's presidential candidates. There is a certain irony here. The Bush administration goes to great lengths to advertise their attachment to all things American, but is also eager to foment radical change in the political system. However, it should be evident that the Bush administration and its supporters are highly suspicious if not completely hostile to the American political system and the traditional conservatives, moderates, and liberals who make up the vast majority of the population. In order to pursue a right-wing agenda, Bush and his people have had to neutralize the political institutions through which the values of the majority have expressed themselves. And one has to admit that they've done an excellent job of neutralizing the Cabinet Departments, Congress, and the mainstream media. The only real source of institutional resistance to the Bush administration and their supporters is now the courts and Republican Congressional leaders are currently working on ways to put pressure on the judiciary.Although I oppose the Bush administration, I would like to see the next Democratic Administration pursue the same kind of centralization strategies. To do that though, the Democrats need to start becoming as innovative and forceful as the Republicans and they're a long way from that


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