It Ought to Be Easier to Change Presidents This Scandal Should Alter Attitudes about the Office

Article excerpt

If the US had a parliamentary system, the Clinton presidency would already have been consigned, in Augustine Birrell's felicitous phrase, to the great ash heap called history.

In parliamentary systems, the head of government and head of state are different offices. The head of state is usually a powerless figurehead, like Britain's (and Canada's and Australia's) Queen Elizabeth; sometimes an excruciating embarrassment, like Austria's Kurt Waldheim; occasionally a symbol of national pride, like the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel.

Usually they're elected for fixed terms or, in constitutional monarchies, until they die or abdicate. And when they do go, the impact on policymaking is usually minimal. Heads of government are a different story. They must maintain the confidence of their legislature, and of their own party. If they don't, they're out. New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger was recently deposed in a Cabinet coup for the horrific sin of being unpopular with the electorate. Others, like Canada's Brian Mulroney and Britain's Margaret Thatcher, met the same fate, although sometimes with the face-saving facade of voluntary resignation. Scandal, too, - financial, sexual, or otherwise - can do in prime ministers. Think of poor Willy Brandt, who had the misfortune of having an East German spy as a top adviser. And in countries where coalition governments are the norm, one or more parties in the coalition may withdraw their support, causing the prime minister and his or her government to resign. In Italy, it's as common as eating pasta. Not in the US. In this country, we elect presidents for fixed terms. And the president is viewed as a symbol of national unity - even when elected with a plurality of the vote. Thus residents stay in office even when they are incapacitated, like Woodrow Wilson, or discredited, like Herbert Hoover. Absent a smoking gun that makes impeachment politically viable, a wounded president can stay in office until the end of his term. Proponents of a shift to parliamentary institutions, like Lloyd Cutler, have long viewed the difficulty of getting rid of presidents who have outlived their usefulness to the country as one of the central weaknesses of our current institutions. It doesn't need to be that way. And it's time for a change. No, not a change in our institutions. The hurdles to changing our Constitution make even considering such a move a waste of time. …