BY CHRIS SZABLA
One is a steely policy wonk, the other a soaring rhetorician. One has navigated the treacherous waters of the old boys’ club, carving out a reputation as an “iron lady” in a world that had hitherto been ruled by men. The other is known for his ruminations on the nature of identity and his grandiose speeches advocating national pride and unity. The two have different styles, but coexist easily in their nation’s government: they are Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Köhler of Germany.
The contrast between the personalities and political styles of Merkel and Köhler mirrors, considerably, that between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And yet, while the two Democratic candidates for president fight on in a brutal, scorched-earth primary campaign that has gone on fourteen months and counting, Merkel and Köhler lead together in relative peace. The reason is that their personalities fit the roles in government which they have assumed: Merkel, the tough politician, hacks out difficult compromises within her multiparty cabinet; Köhler, a sunny ex-banker, sits back and “governs” Germany with limited, ceremonial power.
Imagine for a moment that a parliamentary system like Germany’s were implemented here. Instead of trying to fit their personalities into the straightjacket of the American presidency, Hillary and Obama might find they are much more suited to be a prime minister and a ceremonial president, respectively.
Hillary Clinton’s purported partisan fidelity would serve her well as a party leader on the floor of a Parliament, where her job would be to defend against an onslaught of questions and challenges from the opposition. Indeed, Parliaments are often arenas where jokes and insults are more valuable than appearing inoffensive; Paul Keating, famed for his personal attacks and irrepressible vulgarity, is considered one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers.
In this world, Hillary’s alleged aptitude for backroom deal-making and intimidation would, in fact, be assets. She would be free to hit back at every accusation without needing to worry about compromising the dignity of the executive or appearing “unpresidential”. For that same reason, she wouldn’t have to worry about pressing party members when the time came to consolidate their votes.
Obama, meanwhile, could use his oratorical gifts to inspire and unite while remaining far from the political fray. Without the power to move policy, his greatest handicaps, such as his lack of specificity or experience, would be irrelevant. As symbolic head of state, his multiracial, multinational heritage would still grant the U.S. a disarming propaganda victory against anyone spreading false stereotypes of how internally stratified or externally aloof this country is. And without the need to bear the blame for positions that resulted in wars, recessions, or disasters, Obama really could be all things to all people: the uniter he has always campaigned to be.
This is merely a space to suspend one’s disbelief, however, and not to seriously argue for a parliamentary system in the United States (although subjecting George W. Bush to Prime Minister’s Questions, live in prime time, might have exposed some of his administration’s less justifiable policies).
The closest the current state of affairs could come to approximating this ideal would be if Hillary and Obama appeared on a joint ticket, with the New York Senator at the helm. Again, she would assume the more “pragmatic” role, and Obama the more “ceremonial,” symbolic one.
Still, this arrangement would hardly be ideal: the presidency is closely watched by more than just policymakers, and requires a semiotic flair. Similarly, the vice president, who casts the tiebreaking vote in the Senate, will often need to fall on one side of the aisle or another (and almost certainly can’t vote “present”).
Ultimately, looking at the presidential race through a parliamentary lens serves to illustrate the unrealistic demands placed on any American president. As head of government, the executive must be involved and engaged in proposing and implementing laws, which is an almost inevitably one-sided, partisan effort. At the same time, as head of state, it must remain a symbol of unity. It needs to be seen as a caring for the welfare of Americans in general, and not one party or position in particular.
This demonstrates why so many Democrats are torn between their two candidates: each exemplifies, equally, one of the two diametrically opposed qualities demanded of a president. And, so, the race goes on, efficient distributions of talent left to the Germans, and the colorful rancor of Prime Minister’s Question Time to late night rebroadcasts on CSPAN-2.
Chris Szabla is a 1L.