I'm not entirely certain why I do it, but I sometimes slip and flip through the cable news programs during primetime hours. Since I try to look at issues and events through a historical lens, this practice often leaves me cursing at the television and turning it off. Tonight, Chris Matthews was the one who pushed me over the edge.
Matthews was interviewing Mitt Romney and asked him, "Do you trust the current administration to fix this financial crisis?" Romney gave the kind of answer to be expected -- a series of talking points that not only don't address the question, but don't provide any kind of evidence or support. I think Romney's response left me more shaking my head and chuckling than irritating me.
That's where Matthews came in. He rattled off a series of his own conventional wisdom soundbites, most of which I quickly forgot. However, one of the completely unsupported talking points stuck firmly in my mind. Matthews said something close to, "The people look to the chief executive to manage the economy."
I watched an interview with Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers' Journal (August 15, 2008) that immediately came to mind in contrast to Matthews' statement:
BILL MOYERS: So, this brings us to what you call the political crisis of America. And you say, "The actual system of government conceived by the framers no longer pertains." What pertains?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I am expressing in the book, in a sense, what many of us sense, even if many of us don't really want to confront the implications. The Congress, especially with regard to matters related to national security policy, has thrust power and authority to the executive branch. We have created an imperial presidency. The congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. The Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of members of Congress.
As the imperial presidency has accrued power, surrounding the imperial presidency has come to be this group of institutions called the National Security State. The CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the other intelligence agencies. Now, these have grown since the end of World War Two into this mammoth enterprise.
But the National Security State doesn't work. The National Security State was not able to identify the 9/11 conspiracy. Was not able to deflect the attackers on 9/11. The National Security State was not able to plan intelligently for the Iraq War. Even if you think that the Iraq War was necessary. They were not able to put together an intelligent workable plan for that war.
The National Security State has not been able to provide the resources necessary to fight this so called global war on terror. So, as the Congress has moved to the margins, as the President has moved to the center of our politics, the presidency itself has come to be, I think, less effective. The system is broken....
(Further down in the interview)
BILL MOYERS: I was in the White House, back in the early 60s, and I've been a White House watcher ever since. And I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.
You say, "Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, "the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation's charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one." I would say you nailed the modern presidency.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and the - I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with, fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.
We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint - we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.
One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.
I completely agree with Bacevich's criticisms of the imperial presidency as presented here. Matthews' comment regarding the President and the economy confirms these criticisms. Congress neither bears nor has any responsibility. Business has neither. Nor do the people. Rather, it is yet another responsibility of the President to ensure that the economy satisfies our endless parade of wants.
Let me be clear -- in no way do I think this absolves the current administration (or the last few, at least through Reagan) for the emergence of an "anything goes, greed is good" culture in high finance. However, our expectation that such hopes and demands could be placed in the hands of one person, and those hopes and demands be fulfilled, is the height of folly. Our institutions of democracy are weaker for it.
Raspberries to Chris Matthews for perpetuating this particularly odious piece of convential wisdom.