Defending Fareed Zakaria from Pete Wehner

The presidency may be more powerful than the Founders intended, but that helped America prevail against her enemies in the last century.

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Commentary’s Pete Wehner takes CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria to task for suggesting that parliamentary governments like Great Britain’s are superior to our presidential system, which, Zakaria argues, is too mired in separation-of-powers-induced gridlock to respond adequately to the current global financial crisis.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Overall, I share Wehner’s instinctive skepticism toward those who blame James Madison when they don’t get their way.

But let me stick up for Zakaria a bit. For instance, Wehner asserts that the “debt ceiling debate had a resolution. The two parties did arrive at an agreement, and default was avoided. The process may not have been pretty, but it worked.” [See cartoons on the deficit and national debt.]

Yes and no: A default was avoided. But a credit downgrade wasn’t—and that was Zakaria’s point. Moreover, credit rating company Standard & Poor’s statement on the downgrade fingered the very political dysfunction that Zakaria decries:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed ...

The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year’s wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently.

Then there’s bit of syllogism from Wehner: “There is also the fact the 20th century was rightly called the American Century—and during that run we had not a parliamentary system but a presidential one. It did pretty well, and to pretend the challenges we face today dwarf the challenges we faced then is silly and historically ignorant.”

If Zakaria had made such an argument, I’d join in calling him silly and ignorant. But Zakaria never mentioned the challenges of the last century. I’ll game out Zakaria’s silence on the topic and surmise that he’d say our present challenges aren’t “bigger” or “smaller”—they’re different. And they require a more nimble response than our slow-grinding constitutional machinery allows. [See a slide show of the worst presidents in history.]

Which brings me to my point of mutual disagreement with both Wehner and Zakaria: The country’s political system has already slipped from its constitutional moorings, and in just the fashion that Zakaria seeks and Wehner resists.

Political scientist Jeffrey Tulis’s now-classic The Rhetorical Presidency brilliantly surveyed how presidents since the innovative and/or diabolical Woodrow Wilson have employed public rhetoric, often to the point of demagoguery, to transcend the separation of powers. (It’s worth noting that President Obama took this tack in the debt-ceiling debate, and failed miserably.)

Zakaria points to the filibuster as an extra-constitutional excrescence that has contributed significantly to congressional gridlock. He’s right about the extra-constitutionality of the filibuster, but he’s strikingly naive about just how powerful the presidency has grown at Congress’s expense in the last 100 years.

I think, too, that Wehner doesn’t properly appreciate the degree to which a presidency more powerful than the Founders intended helped America prevail against her enemies in the last century. I’m thinking here of the broad latitude that the office of the president enjoys in matters of warmaking (or “kinetic military action” or whatever we’re calling it these days) and national security.

The debate between Wehner and Zakaria is an interesting one—but better-suited to 1911 rather than 2011.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.
  • See a slide show of the worst presidents in history.
  • See editorial cartoons on the deficit and national debt.