Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Team of Rivals

"Until today we were rivals, and now we're colleagues. That says a lot about the scale of the new politics which is beginning to unfold." - UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, standing beside Prime Minister David Cameron.

It was half way through the W administration that I began considering the merits of a parliamentary system of government.

Mostly it was the weekly "Questions to the Prime Minister" session that convinced me the British system may be superior to our presidential system. By constitutional convention in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister spends a half-hour answering questions from members of Parliament.

By my lights, it's the best show on CSpan. Each week, the PM faces friendly inquiries from his own back-benchers or churlish challenges from the opposition. Some of the accusations leveled at the head of Her Majesty's Government are downright nasty, but the best Prime Ministers have excelled at deflecting harsh words and cramming them back into the mouths of their accusers. Margaret Thatcher was a joy to watch, and so was Tony Blair. Mrs. Thatcher would stand resolutely at her podium, pointing her finger at her callous challenger while shouting, "Right!" until he lost his train of thought and sat down. (In Parliamentary debate, "Right" generally means, "shut the hell up you bloody twit.") Blair, on the other hand, would respond to criticisms with persuasive answers, a beguiling smile and occasional irony. He is a master at thinking on his feet.

Which W is not. During most of his administration I thought it would be interesting if he, too, had a constitutional requirement to stand in the well of the House or Senate for a half-hour each week to answer questions from Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and a slew of CSpan-hogging pols. Would W's famous syntactical effusions be the equal of Thatcher or Blair? I think not - but it would have been a great show. I would have loved to hear W answer questions from the Congress about his definition of "Mission Accomplished," or what he meant by "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."

I have a private list, incidentally, of U.S. presidents who would have excelled in Question Sessions in Congress. I'd rank as "potentially brilliant" FDR, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama. In the "potentially lame" category fall Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and W. Of course, this will have to remain entirely theoretical.

Last week's electoral drama in the United Kingdom did little to shake my suspicion that the Brits may have a superior form of government - this despite hours of commentary on the BBC that the "Hung Parliament" that emerged from the election exposed the weaknesses of the system.

In case you missed it, in Britain a party must win a majority of Parliament's 650 seats to claim power. When the counting was finished last week, no party had won the magic number of 326 seats. The tally: Conservatives, 306; Labour, 258; Liberal Democrats, 57; other, 28. (If you're adding the seats, one constituency will remain unrepresented until a by-election because the candidate died.)

No need to dwell on the vitriol of the British campaign because, by American standards, the rhetoric was insufficiently rancid. Even so, the personal animosities that existed between the major party leaders were fairly transparent. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who will be deeply missed by British cartoonists (see especially the brilliant Peter Brooks at, seemed quite cordially despised by his opponents, Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Cameron and Clegg, perhaps the farthest apart ideologically, were contemptuous of one another. At one point journalists asked Cameron for his favorite joke, and he replied, "Nick Clegg."

The election results left all three leaders hanging - literally in a Brooks cartoon. Americans watching the drama may have been reminded of the Presidential election of 2000 in which neither W nor Al Gore appeared to have enough electoral votes to claim victory. In the American scenario, the election was decided by the Supreme Court. In the British version last week, the impasse led to feverish back-alley negotiations among to parties to cobble sufficient support to form a government. Clegg, whose 57 seats were a disappointing result, immediately opened talks, first with the Conservatives and then with Labour. Gordon Brown, looking Nixonian with his jowly five o'clock shadow, held out for the unlikely possibility that the Lib Dems (and other assorted minority parties) would help keep him in office.

In the end, Clegg - whose 57 seats would otherwise have been barely visible amid the 592 others - emerged with a remarkable claim on power. As my friend Professor Stewart Hoover noted on FaceBook, "If I ever need someone to negotiate for me, I'd want Nick Clegg. He took the Tories to the cleaners."

In short, David Cameron, the Tory, is Prime Minister today because Clegg negotiated a coalition government in which Tory and Liberal Democrat votes form a comfortable majority of 363. Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister, and four Lib Dems who would otherwise have languished in the shadows are members of the Cameron cabinet.

In the days since they have assumed power, Cameron and Clegg have been speaking optimistically about their new partnership, which they declare will not be interrupted until the next round of elections in May 2015. The British press is slightly more skeptical, but - who knows? It could work.

Actually, I was unexpectedly moved by the sight of the PM and Deputy PM standing side-by-side outside of Downing Street, joking, calling each other by their first names, promising to put aside rivalries for the good of the country.

Americans, fed-up as we are by relentless partisanship could get downright emotional about the coalition the Brits are modeling. Can it happen here?

I'd be the first to say it: never. The Constitutional requirements for an electoral college, the ancient and moribund rules of the House and the Senate, the polarizing media that encourages partisans to shout before they think, all have combined to trap us in a system where party or ideological power is more valuable to the politicians than the good of the country.

But the unexpected accomplishment of David Cameron and Nick Clegg - the formation of what the British press is calling a "LibCon government" - is an encouraging sideshow across the pond.

The next time I hear myself saying, "If Sarah Palin is elected president, I'm moving to England," I might just do it.