Real Governments Don't Need 'Focus'


Washington. -- If Bill Clinton wants to avoid failure, he desperately needs to focus his presidency on one or two major issues. How do I know this? Because in the last three weeks, according to the Nexis data base, there have been 201 separate stories in the Washington Post and New York Times containing the words "Clinton" and "focus."

The next word to appear in 201 stories about President Clinton will probably be "comeback." But I want to suggest another, more pessimistic angle: President Clinton is failing, he'll keep failing, and it's not his fault. It's James Madison's.

I'm serious about this. Mr. Clinton is having trouble getting the American government to produce results because the American government was designed by the Framers of the Constitution to not produce results. The Framers wanted a government that wouldn't act abusively. They achieved their goal by creating ......TC government in which action of any sort was difficult, requiring the assent of three independent power centers (President, Senate and House). It's a gridlock machine.

If President Clinton can't make this balky mechanism work, should we blame him or the mechanism? Take the fuss about "focus." President Clinton, we're told, must be faulted because he's proposing a budget, along with health-care reform, campaign-finance reform, a national service plan and an "enterprise zone" plan. Instead, he should pick one issue at a time and drum up support through a single-minded PR campaign.

Maybe that's what it takes to get legislation out of the House and Senate. But do we really want a government that can only do one thing at a time? It's not as if campaign reform, national service, etc., aren't worthwhile initiatives.

It's even too much, apparently, for Mr. Clinton to pick one domestic issue and one foreign policy issue. This was the implicit premise in much of the punditry about Bosnia. Air strikes? Troop deployments? "How can he do that at the same time as he's trying to push his economic program and health care on the Hill?" asks NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

But while there is a good moral and strategic argument that America shouldn't intervene in the Balkans, it is surely not a good moral argument that says Bosnians must die because the American Congress is incapable of debating both a military exercise and a modest deficit-reduction. How are we to be the "world's only superpower" with a government that can't walk and chew gum at the same time?

Real governments don't need "focus." They can move on several fronts at once. They elect leaders, give them enough power to act and then hold them accountable. This is what parliamentary governments do. In a parliamentary system, Mr. Clinton would have been elected along with a legislature that would reliably enact his agenda. If the legislature lost confidence in him, he could be replaced.

The most visible product of our "gridlock" is the federal deficit. Canada has a deficit too -- but it also has a parliamentary system. The Canadians cut their deficit from 8.7 percent of GDP in 1984-5 to 5.1 percent in 1991-2. Meanwhile, the U.S. succeeded in cutting its deficit from 5.6 percent of GDP to . . . well, to 5.8 percent. In 1990, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney proposed -- and enacted -- a national sales tax of about 2 percent of GDP. Canada's budget is now expected to be in surplus by 1998.

Parliamentary systems, of course, have well-known, weaknesses, including the possibility that minor parties will proliferate. But there are semi-parliamentary reforms that would minimize this danger while giving our presidents a fighting chance to get something done. Here are three:

* The "team ticket." Every four years, congressional candidates would run as a "team" with the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of their party. Voters could not split their ballots (just as they cannot now split the presidential ticket). This would virtually assure that any president would enter office with at least a majority in the House. Doesn't Mr. Clinton already have a House majority? Of course. But what he doesn't have is a system in which House members know that if he fails, they are likely to go down to defeat with him in four years.

* The Yeltsin Solution. Recalcitrant legislature blocking your president's program? Give him authority, once or twice a term, to frame a referendum and put it to a vote of the nation. The mere threat of a referendum on, say, a no-nonsense budget package should be enough to cow Congress.

* The no-confidence vote. If the president is to get more power, we should be able to remove him if he misuses that power. Wouldn't no-confidence votes produce weak Italian-style governments? Not as long as legislators knew that if they voted President Clinton out they'd trigger a new election in which they, as well as the president, would have to run.

None of these reforms will happen, certainly not while President Clinton is around. Instead, he will flail away, trying to "focus," trying to use the "bully pulpit," trying anything to get the three branches together, while the commentators chide him for his failure.

It's a little like one of those "Candid Camera" routines where the audience laughs at the poor sucker who tries to open a nailed-shut window.

But the joke is wearing thin.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Mickey Kaus.

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