Saturday, January 26, 2008

Perils of a plural Presidency

In today's NY Times, which recently gave hometown favorite Mrs. Clinton the nod in the upcoming primaries, Garry Wills raises a question that hadn't really occurred to me regarding the potential Clinton restoration. As before, the mister and missus are running as a twofer, i.e. elect Hillary, get Bill for free. That is cited by some supporters as the best reason to vote Clinton. But how great an idea IS this, really?

Wills sets up the scenario nicely. "SENATOR Hillary Clinton has based her campaign on experience — 35 years of it by her count. That must include her eight years in the White House. Some may debate whether those years count as executive experience. But there can be no doubt that her husband had the presidential experience, fully. He has shown during his wife’s campaign that he is a person of initiative and energy. Does anyone expect him not to use his experience in an energetic way if he re-enters the White House as the first spouse? Mrs. Clinton claims that her time in that role was an active one. He can hardly be expected to show less involvement when he returns to the scene of his time in power as the resident expert. He is not the kind to be a potted plant in the White House."

So far, so good, right? Well...maybe not so much...

"This is not a new question," Wills continues. "It was intensely debated in the convention that formulated our Constitution. The Virginia Plan for the new document submitted by Edmund Randolph and the New Jersey Plan submitted by William Paterson left open the number of officers to hold the executive power. Some (like Hugh Williamson of North Carolina) argued for a three-person executive, each member coming from a different region of the country. More people argued (like George Mason of Virginia) for a multiple-member executive council. The objection to giving executive power to a single person came from the framers’ experience with the British monarchy and the royal governors of the colonies. They did not want another monarch.

But as the debate went forward a consensus formed that republican rule would check the single initiative of a president. In fact, accountability to the legislature demanded that responsibility be lodged where it could be called to account. A plural presidency would leave it uncertain whom to check. How, for instance, would Congress decide which part of the executive should be impeached in case of high crimes and misdemeanors? One member of the plural executive could hide behind the other members.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania made the argument for a single officeholder with typical depth and precision: 'To control the executive, you must unite it. One man will be more responsible than three. Three will contend among themselves till one becomes the master of his colleagues. In the triumvirates of Rome, first Caesar, then Augustus, are witnesses of this truth. The kings of Sparta and the consuls of Rome prove also the factious consequences of dividing the executive magistracy.'

Wilson and his allies carried the day; and their argument is as good now as when they embedded it in the Constitution."

Come to think of it, we've seen this show before, pretty recently, and it isn't pretty...

"One problem with the George W. Bush administration is that it has brought a kind of plural presidency in through the back door. Vice President Dick Cheney has run his own executive department, with its own intelligence and military operations, not open to scrutiny, as he hides behind the putative president. No other vice president in our history has taken on so many presidential prerogatives, with so few checks. He is an example of the very thing James Wilson was trying to prevent by having one locus of authority in the executive. The attempt to escape single responsibility was perfectly exemplified when his counsel argued that Mr. Cheney was not subject to executive rules because he was also part of the legislature."

That's at least as good an argument against a Clinton restoration as the ones against dynasty politics...if you're looking for accountability in the Oval Office, which we most certainly have NOT had in the Bush-Cheney presidency, you might want to reconsider returning the Clintons. If pro-Clinton friends object, you would be on solid ground in taking them back to First Principles, as Wills makes clear above.


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