The Constitution: Pretty Disappointing

I recently finished Sanford Levinson's book, Our Undemocratic Constitution, a comprehensive look at the case that we should hold a constitutional convention and try to write a new one based on the lessons about history and institutional design that have been learned over the past 200 or so years. It's a very good book. Indeed, I'd say my least favorite part was simply the title. If you define "democratic" as very narrowly meaning "majority rule" people will rightly say "it's not so bad to be somewhat undemocratic." But if you give "democratic" a more sophisticated, thicker meaning, then arguments about whether or not something is democratic get very airy and confusing. What Levinson is arguing is simply that the constitution is bad in a wide variety of ways. Jonathan Chait gets at one of those ways, the 22nd Amendment's prohibition on running for president over-and-over again. Thus, as he points out, we get Hillary Clinton running for president as a kind of stand-in for her husband, much as Al Gore did in 2002. And worse -- we'll never get to repudiate Bush:

If we had a straight dictatorship, Bush would long ago have been dragged out of the White House either by an angry mob or by disgruntled generals. (Note to oversensitive conservatives: I'm strongly against both dictatorships and assassinating Bush or any other president.) If we could vote for whoever we want, regardless of prior service, Bush would probably be dumped unceremoniously in 2008. Only our kooky current system lets him retire undefeated.



22nd Amendment aside, it's worth pointing out that we wouldn't be in this mess if we had parliamentary government like every other country. Either there would have been an election sometime in the recent past that Bush would have lost, laying the groundwork for a dramatic shift in policies, or else like Margaret Thatcher in 1990 Bush would have been dumped by his own party which was worried that his failed policies were dragging them into the ground and we'd have seen at least a medium-sized course-correction.

Instead, Bush has been repudiated and yet nothing's changed. Worse, political debate in the country now centers around where people stand on essentially meaningless questions. Should congress pass a symbolic resolution against the surge, or pass a destined-to-be-vetoed resolution preventing the surge? The impact is the same in either case, but such disagreements will be the stuff of many an intra-Democratic feud for two years. In a proper country, the fact that the whole party agrees on the underlying question -- to surge or not to surge? -- would be carrying the weight here. A new prime minister would come in and begin disentangling ourselves from Iran rather than digging the hole deeper.