The bad vibes of American political institutions
We get centrist results the worst possible way
Thomas Friedman’s column floating the idea of Biden-Cheney 2024 has a dumb headline, but it focuses on a reasonable and important analogy for the current American political situation — the governing coalition in Israel.
As Friedman notes, the current Israeli cabinet is “the most diverse national unity government in Israel’s history, one that stretches from Jewish settlers on the right all the way to an Israeli-Arab Islamist party and super-liberals on the left.” What unites the coalition members? The belief that Benjamin Netanyahu is corrupt and was using his powers of office to undermine the rule of law and facilitate his personal corruption. Friedman suggests that a similar big-tent anti-Trump coalition, headlined by a Biden-Cheney ticket in 2024, could be a more politically effective machine than the current version of Bidenism, which is obsessed with trying to arm-twist Joe Manchin into passing more legislation but not actually enacting that much legislation.
I really do agree with Friedman that American progressives should spend some time pondering Israel’s example, less in order to imitate the Israelis than to interrogate our own feelings. If you think the progressive policy agenda is more important than maximizing anti-Trump tactical efficacy, that’s a perfectly plausible viewpoint — but it calls for less apocalypticism about the possibility that Trump could win again in 2024.
But in terms of Friedman’s specific idea, he fails to note the key point that the U.S. and Israel have completely different institutions. If you find it regrettable that America doesn’t have more national unity governments and grand coalitions, your focus should be on creating institutional change, not kicking Kamala Harris off the ticket.
Centrist coalitions are very common
The current Israeli cabinet is genuinely very odd, in part because Israeli politics is so eccentric.
But the idea of a coalition government featuring ministers from both right of center and left of center parties is quite common. In Germany, Olaf Scholz leads a mostly center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens that also incorporates several ministers from the center-right Free Democratic Party. In opposition is the center-right Christian Democratic Union but also the right-populist Alliance for Germany and the far-left Die Linke. The previous two German cabinets were led by the CDU with the Social Democrats as junior partners and the other parties in opposition.
In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte had been leading a four-party coalition of three right-of-center parties and one left-of-center party. After the most recent election, the same four parties formed a new coalition with Rutte continuing as the leader, but because the left-of-center party (D66) gained a bunch of seats, the coalition’s platform is now somewhat more progressive.
Both of those countries have centrist governments in part to keep populist-right parties out of power. But Italy has a national unity coalition that includes ministers from the populist-right League.
And that’s not because proportional representation systems have to lead to national unity coalitions. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway all have center-left minority cabinets right now, while Finland has a center-left majority government. The point is just that the centrist coalition is always a live possibility in a parliamentary system, especially one where proportional representation leads to a fragmented landscape. We don’t do this in the United States, not because nobody ever thought it might be nice but because the institutional framework doesn’t exist.
What would VP Cheney do?
Whenever this kind of idea is floated in the United States, people tend to gravitate toward exactly what Friedman suggests — the junior partner in the coalition gets the vice presidency.
But the American vice presidency is an infamously weird job. The VP has no real area of responsibility, so allocating the VP post to someone doesn’t give them any policy wins. At the same time, the VP’s role is extremely important because presidents really do die in office sometimes. The United States’ singular national unity experiment ended disastrously for precisely this reason. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln thought it would be smart to put pro-war Democrat Andrew Johnson on the ticket to maximize political support for the overwhelmingly important cause of defeating the Confederacy. Then, tragically, Lincoln was murdered.
Instead of Reconstruction being led by Lincoln — who generally tried to temper Radical Republican ideas with political pragmatism — it was led by Johnson, who had completely different and terrible policy ideas.
In Germany, the co-head of the Green Party holds the title of Vice Chancellor. But if Scholz dies, the coalition doesn’t suddenly flip to being Green-led. Instead, parliament would appoint a new chancellor (presumably Scholz’s successor as leader of the Social Democrats) to carry out the coalition’s policies. Meanwhile, the Free Democrats’ leader Christian Lindner serves as Finance Minister but most importantly he is the check on how ambitious the mostly-progressive coalition can be. If he doesn’t want to do stuff, it can’t get done (this paragraph has been corrected).
Centrist policymaking in America
In the United States, Joe Manchin plays the Lindner role.
People sometimes do this weird troll where they assert that Manchin rather than Biden is the “real president.” But Biden lives in the White House. Biden flies on Air Force One. Biden appoints thousands of people to executive offices. Biden serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Biden represents the country symbolically in national addresses and in discussions with foreign leaders. He is the president, just as Scholz is the chancellor of Germany. But Scholz can pass legislation only insofar as he can persuade Habeck’s party to back it, and Biden can pass legislation only insofar as he can persuade Manchin to back it.
When Trump was president, I don’t think anyone pretended to think that Lisa Murkowski was secretly president. But she was a pivotal senator. If she was more enthusiastic about right-wing legislation, then more right-wing legislation would have passed. If she was less enthusiastic about right-wing legislation, then less right-wing legislation would have passed. My strong suspicion is that if Trump wins again in 2024, he’ll have a Senate majority large enough that he can ignore Murkowski and Susan Collins, and many people will be taken aback by how much more hard-edged and extreme the legislative agenda ends up being.
By the same token, had Democratic Senate candidates in North Carolina and Maine done better, then Manchin wouldn’t be as important. If the Greens and Social Democrats had done a bit better in Germany, they wouldn’t need the FDP as coalition partners. That’s how life works — in either kind of institutional design, controlling the pivot point in the legislature is a powerful position.
American institutions create bad vibes
So the bad news for people who want a centrist coalition to run the country is that American institutional design makes that impossible.
The good news for people who want a centrist coalition to run the country is that centrist legislators run the show anyway.
Our institutions are just worse. In Germany, the leaders of the three parties had weeks of meetings in order to hammer out a coalition agreement before the new government could be inaugurated. In America, we instead have this endless procession of drama in which the Biden-Manchin relationship is constantly renegotiated on the fly and neither party really knows what the other’s bottom line is. This makes American politics a lot more entertaining as a sport. But in terms of people’s psychological well-being, it just leads to everyone being mad all the time.
When America defeats a foreign country in a war and creates a new government, we normally set them up with a parliamentary system and proportional elections, as in Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, and Iraq.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to suddenly scrap 200+ years of our own Madisonian government just because all the comparative government scholars think it’s bad.
What we — the take-slingers of American — can do, though, is play national therapist to an extent and try to help everyone be less angry and depressed. If, as a progressive, you think of Joe Manchin as “negotiating the terms of a centrist coalition government” rather than “blocking the Biden agenda” and as “junior partner in the coalition” rather than “the real president,” you’ll be a lot less mad. And if, as a moderate, you think of the country as being governed by a centrist coalition government thanks to the pivotal role of Joe Manchin (and Kyrsten Sinema, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, etc.), you’ll also be a lot less mad.
In the initial draft of this piece, I mixed up FDP leader Lindner with Green co-leader Robert Habeck. Linder is Finance Minister while Habeck leads a climate and economics ministry.
In Afghanistan, our guy Hamid Karzai said he wanted a presidential system so we did that. And while I don’t want to say that presidentialism is the reason the Afghan government collapsed while the Iraqi one has been more resilient, I think it’s maybe at least somewhat true?
Democrats should take the deals on climate and the Electoral Count Act, then pivot to getting majorities in 2024. That's the stuff on the table and we are out of time.
A lot of the bad vibes in our system come from the mismatch between the President's actual institutional power, and the public and punditry's expectations of what a President can do. A President can talk a big game, has a big bully pulpit, but except to the extent that Congress delegates actual lawmaking power to the President, that power resides in Congress, notwithstanding public expectations.
This mismatch that creates the bad vibes could be resolved two ways: increase the President's actual lawmaking power to rule independently of Congress, by allowing or encouraging Congress to delegate more power to the President. Or seek to diminish the power and prestige of the Presidency, treat the President less like a king and more like an administrator in chief, and seek to build up the policymaking infrastructure and capabilities of Congress. The kind of policymaking staff and apparatus, and the budget that goes with it, that lives in the White House could instead be in the Speaker and Majority Leader's offices.
It seems clear which one is the better solution, if one cares more about long-term institutional health than winning the short-term policy battle of the day.