A Constitutional Question


For understandable reasons, most coverage of the Clintons' dual political persona focuses on the oddity of a married couple each seeking the same executive office in turn. This is indeed remarkable in American politics, although more familiar to historians of India, the Philippines or South America. And it allows for people to write as if having a power-couple as co-presidents is just an interesting, even appealing novelty.

But the trouble with such an arrangement is not its tabloidy and democratically primitive charms. It is its under-appreciated threat to democratic accountability and even the Constitution. In the first Clinton term, we had an unprecedented situation where a woman elected to nothing and with no Cabinet rank was given responsibility for the entire healthcare system. She was accountable largely to a man she was married to - not the American people. She functioned not as the traditional spouse of a president, but as a free-floating second president whose line of authority was at once clear (no one dared cross her) and confusing (what legal authority does she have anyway?). As the Clinton term progressed, it appeared that she reverted to a more traditional role - but we do not know since the records of the couple's political arrangement remain sequestered from public scrutiny.

But if we faced a problem in the first Clinton presidency, imagine what we confront in the second. Now, the spouse is actually a two-term former president. What this campaign has revealed is that he intends to play no small role.

In fact, the way in which he has dominated and controlled the narrative of the Clinton campaign since Iowa suggests that if his wife wins the Oval Office, she will largely have him to thank. He will have immensely more power in his wife's first term than she had in either of his. To understand how this power is exercised, we are compelled to understand the personal emotional dynamics of a marriage. And so legitimate scrutiny can be shrouded by claims of marital privacy and privilege (as it has been before). Any accountability a president Hillary Clinton has to the American people will be refracted through her husband and vice versa. The arrangement all but requires opacity where democracy demands transparency. In fact, the way in which power is being deployed and the manner in which it has to be examined is more familiar to an old-style monarchy than a constitutional republic.

We also confront the issue of the 22nd amendment. I don't like it, but it's there. In fact, we may have the 22nd Amendment to thank for our current predicament. Bill Clinton should have been able to run for a third term in the full light of day under traditional democratic rules. Instead, we now have to grapple with re-electing him to a third (and even fourth) term via his wife. Yes, they narrowly fit the letter of the Constitution, but they sure do violate its spirit and intent.

The problem of political dynasticism is the least of it. American politics have been riven by dynasties from the start. What America has never dealt with is this strange and corrupting arrangement whereby voters are being asked to support two-people-as-one as president. The last two weeks have shown beyond any doubt that this is indeed what is going on. By blurring the lines of accountability, by giving a former president vague but enormous powers in what amounts to an unconstitutional third term, we are sacrificing an important democratic principle and the transparency required to stymie corruption and secret deals kept from public scrutiny by the sacred bonds of matrimony.

There is no reason a constitutional republic should be forced to sacrifice its principles this way. This basic issue of accountability needs to be placed firmly on the table. One option for Barack Obama is to demand now that all the records of the Clintons' marital/political dealings with each other in their first two terms be released in full for public inspection.

(Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty).