We Have a President, Not a King
In, “White House Officials Upset That Republicans Playing Politics Interfered With Their Attempt To Play Politics,” Doug has written almost exactly what I was about to over a manufactured kerfuffle.
In it, he points to a strange MEDIAite column by Tommy Christopher (“Speaker John Boehner Should Resign For His Unprecedented Insult To The President“) that someone emailed me last night and is making the rounds on the blogs.
Let’s give Republicans every benefit of the doubt. Let’s say the White House made their request in the most arrogant, uppity fashion imaginable, and said, “Hey, BONER, you wingers have been bitching up a storm about hearing our plan, so we wanna do this your first day back, so you pricks don’t have a sliver of daylight to claim the President is dragging his feet, or something. Yeah, we know you have a debate that night, but you can push that back a few ticks, mmkay? Haven’t you mouth-breathers heard of the DVR?”
You might not like that request, but it was made in private, in the customary manner, and was completely in bounds. If you want a friend, get a dog, but governing politics is a ruff business.
The time to raise an objection to the date was when the White House first contacted Boehner’s office, the following hour-and-a-half, or even in the fifteen minutes between when they received the letter, and when it was made public. Waiting several hours to send a refusal letter was a calculated decision, designed to disrespect and embarrass the President. Let’s grant that his hypothetical heads-up was the worst provocation imaginable. It was made in private, and the Speaker’s public response was an unprecedented insult to the office of the President of the United States.
As for people like Ed Schultz, who accuse the President of “caving” to Boehner, this is like accusing Newton’s apple of “caving in” to gravity. The President can’t address a joint session of Congress without a concurrent resolution, which Boehner well knew. Rather than handle this the way Speakers always have, like a man, face to face, he made a conscious decision to put Barack Obama in his place by making a public refusal.
This isn’t the first unprecedented Republican insult to the presidency under Barack Obama (but it is, by far, the worst), and it isn’t even the first time John Boehner has tried to make the President “heel” with his datebook. It ought to be the last. Every American who has an appropriate respect for the office of the presidency should demand that John Boehner resign, and every legislator should amplify that demand. The problems facing this country are too great to be left in the hands of someone with such contempt for its highest office.
As someone who’s voted for every Republican president since 1984 and can count on two fingers the number of Democrats he’s voted for at any level, I’ve been frustrated with some of the partisan shenanigans played by Boehner and company. But this isn’t one of them. He countered heavyhanded political grandstanding with a deft maneuver of his own. It’s a ruff business and the White House lost one.
Despite the mythology that has been built up over the years, the president is not in charge of the Congress and the Speaker of the House owes him no deference whatsoever aside from the courtesy of calling him “Mr. President.” Boehner answers only to the constituents of Ohio’s 8th Congressional District and, as Speaker, to the House Republican Caucus.
Nor is the Speaker in any way obligated to jump through hoops to accommodate the president’s political schedule. An address to a Joint Session of Congress is a rare event, usually reserved for the annual State of the Union address and the occasional breaking emergency. Given a week’s notice and an obviously-politically-motivated ploy to hold the speech precisely when the Republican debate was long scheduled–not to mention only a few hours after Congress returns from a scheduled recess– it’s hardly unreasonable to insist the president push off a day.
Frankly, given that the incredible likelihood that there will be nothing new here, with the president using the Congress as a background prop for what amounts to a political stump speech, Boehner would have been well within his rights to decline the request altogether. The television networks have quite often made that decision in recent years.
Christopher is not alone in his outsized notion of the deference owed to the president. Presumably, this stems from the fact that the American president, virtually alone among national leaders, serves as both the effective head of government and nominal head of state.
In the former role, he is a mere politician but one with the enormous power that comes with being in charge of the Executive branch of government. While arguably secondary in domestic politics to the Legislative branch in policymaking, the Executive controls the day-to-day operations of the federal government.
In the latter role, which is unspecified by the Constitution but wielded by every occupant going back to George Washington, the president is the ceremonial leader of the country. He hosts state dinners, cuts ribbons, gives important speeches, and issues statements when something significant happens, someone important dies, or someone sells a lot of Girl Scout cookies. When he’s filling this role, he represents the country as a whole and Members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and the like are expected to let him have the limelight.
Because presidents sometimes wear both hats at the same time, it can be awkward. The classic example of this was Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 1998, he gave a State of the Union address just days after the incredibly embarrassing allegations broke. The following year, he gave the address just days after being impeached by the House and just days before the Senate was to hear the case. Yet, both times, Members were expected to defer to the ceremonial leader of the country. More recently, we’ve had mini-brouhahas when Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” and Justice Samuel Alito mouthed “Not true” during separate Obama speeches to Joint Sessions.
Presidents can’t have it both ways. If they demand the deference owed to a head of state at these things, then they can’t be partisan heads of government while doing it.
Yes, that’s difficult in the current environment. While I think Ezra Klein takes it a bit far in implying that Boehner would rather not create new jobs if Obama gets credit, there’s no doubt that the atmosphere is toxic. But it’s not like the president doesn’t have direct access to the public airwaves. If he wants to give a policy speech slamming Republican obstructionism without the risk of boos and eye rolls, he can give it from the Oval Office, the Briefing Room, or damned where near anywhere except the Capitol.