Institutions Matter

I have various points of agreement and disagreement with Fareed Zakaria’s version of the “Obama is screwing everything up” process column but there’s one point with a really glaring flaw:

The Republican Party has decided to be utterly uncooperative (although on health care Obama never really reached out to them with serious compromises). But whether or not Republican senators would at first reward Obama for adopting a more nonpartisan approach, independent voters would, which would then change the political calculus in Washington. Rahm Emanuel quipped that the task was not to get health-care legislation through “the executive committee of the Brookings Institution, but the U.S. Congress.” In fact, proposals that would impress experts would also impress tens of millions of independents, the vast middle ground where elections are won and lost in America. That is how Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Newt Gingrich, and how Tony Blair outfoxed the Tory party for 10 years.

Here’s the thing. As far as two different countries go, the United States and the United Kingdom have reasonable similar political cultures. So similar sorts of electoral strategies can work in both countries, and political strategists actually do go back-and-forth across the Atlantic. But in terms of political institutions the US and UK are totally different. The UK is a highly centralized country with a de facto unicameral legislature, a parliamentary system, and extremely strong party discipline. The United States is a strongly bicameral federal republic with weak party discipline and an independent executive. Under the circumstances, governing strategies that work in the UK won’t work in the US and vice versa.

You can think what you want about American governing institutions, but I find it very frustrating when commentators don’t acknowledge that our institutions are both unusual (we have the only full presidential system in the developed world) and an important determinant of policy outcomes.