Mary Dejevsky: Has the US Constitution had its day?

The ignorance, bickering and sheer incompetence the present system fosters in a new administration is not worthy of a world power in the modern age

Share
Related Topics

The United States Constitution is a spare and functional document, and pretty much everything a constitution should be. It eschews the high rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, prescribing instead how the system should work. It has been widely admired and imitated, and where it has not been imitated – as with the voluminous and ill-fated European Union constitution – it probably should have been.

As Washington correspondent, I carried a copy around with me through the high dramas of the second Clinton term – the President's impeachment over his lies about the Monica Lewinsky affair and the tied election of 2000. It stood up well under those stresses, providing a solid framework for what should happen in some of the most uncertain and extreme situations a country has to face. Ten years on, though, I wonder whether the confused and desperate aftermath of the 2000 election in Florida was not an early sign that the US Constitution, or maybe the processes that have grown out of it, need to be revisited. Is the US Constitution running out of road?

Several recent developments show that, at very least, the US system of government is not functioning particularly well. Exhibit A might be Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, which – according to the excerpts and advance reports – shows a new President completely at sea and at loggerheads with half his staff and the top brass.

Granted that journalists tend to focus on discord (while diplomats tend to tune it out) and that spats between political leaders and military commanders have a long line of precedents, Woodward's sources still reveal a President of frightening inexperience sometimes at a loss to deal with hostile views and vested interests. This, at a time when the economy was languishing and crucial decisions had to be taken about campaign pledges on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Exhibit B might be the slew of early departures from Obama's team, the most recent being the head of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers. Again, early departures in themselves are not novel. Clinton suffered a similar haemorrhaging of his early appointees. Arguably, George Bush was unusual in the number of senior figures who served two terms. Some people fail to settle in Washington; others find the work of government, as opposed to campaigning or advising, not to their taste. Sometimes chance intervenes, as with the unexpected decision of the long-serving mayor of Chicago not to run for another term, which could deprive Obama of his White House Chief of Staff. Or it could be that a new president has a relatively limited pool to choose from and tries to play safe, while a more experienced President discovers that there are people better suited to his purpose out there.

This is not to argue that presidents require more experience before they take the job. Exhibits A and B do, however, make the case for more continuity higher up the echelons of a new administration. Would the system not benefit from something more akin to Britain's non-partisan civil service to advise and manage both the official Transition and beyond? This might be anathema in a system that deliberately relies so much on patronage. But the number of posts that have to change hands can leave a new president flailing. With Obama, many lower-level posts were still unfilled after he had been in office a year.

Worse, because it unnecessarily hobbles a new administration, is the extent to which possibly significant proposals broached by another country to the outgoing administration can go missing. While the US takes it for granted that a new administration starts with a blank page – outgoing officials take their files with them – others do not appreciate how total the disconnect is, and may feel offended when the new administration fails to follow up. All in all, the ignorance, bickering and sheer incompetence that the present system fosters in a new administration is not worthy of a world power in the modern age.

Exhibit C relates to the legislature. The functioning of government is predicated on a degree of bipartisan give and take in the two houses of Congress. Fiercely adversarial party politics was for the likes of Britain and its Parliament. What the US faces now is a Republican Party that will brook no compromise, within a system that requires members to reach across the aisle. Nor is there any immediate prospect of that changing, as the Republican mainstream feels the populist Tea Party movement pushing it further right. The long-standing US political analyst, Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, describes the split between Democrats and Republicans as more absolute than it was even in 1994 when Newt Gingrich rallied Republicans with his Contract for America. Nor is he alone in seeing it as quite possibly permanent.

Mid-term Congressional elections in November will show how successful the Republicans' policy of no-holds-barred opposition to Obama and the Democrats has been. But the way Congress works – with almost all major legislation requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and thus vulnerable to filibuster – means that a president in such circumstances is effectively stymied. His administration is severely circumscribed, if not paralysed; the power of the White House is compromised.

It is possible that the stalemate will turn out to be temporary; possible, too, that the Tea Party tendency will turn out to be the last gasp of a dying demographic group and that US politics will slot back to the more productive equilibrium of before. The sharp decline in social conservatism and the greater tolerance charted in surveys of younger voters – attitudes which helped Obama to the presidency – could eventually shift the centre of US politics to a different, more European, place. This, in turn, could bring all sorts of changes of its own.

But that is to jump ahead. In the meantime, the US Constitution and the way US politics functions are looking somewhat frayed around the edges. President Obama's inexperience may have made his first 18 months more difficult than they might have been, but his country's outdated institutions made things much, much worse.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story