It Ought to Be Easier to Change Presidents

January 28, 1998

If the U.S. 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.

In parliamentary systems, heads of government must maintain the confidence of their legislature, and of their party. 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. It’s time for a change in our beliefs about the presidency, and in the behavior of our presidents. We should stop believing that an election every four years gives the presidential incumbent a divine right to rule unless he dies or commits an impeachable offense. And presidents should start considering whether, when their administration seems mired in scandal or simply spinning its wheels, it might not be better to give the country a fresh start, with a new face at the top—a face they had enough confidence in to choose as their running mate. Not because there is no alternative, but because it would be better for the country.

It’s not a change without potential costs. If the political barrier to getting rid of a president is lowered from an impeachable offense to merely an embarrassment and a political cost to the governing party, then the opposition party may declare open season on the president, hoping to drive him out of office on the slightest pretext.

That’s possible, but doesn’t seem very likely. Appearing to have a vendetta against the president can generate a backlash, as it has against independent counsel Kenneth Starr. And if it results in a more popular replacement entering the presidency, campaigning to get the president out of office can have even higher costs. It’s likely that even if completing a four-year term was no longer viewed as a sure thing, it would remain the norm. Only presidents like the current one who, whatever their other abilities, seem to have extraordinarily poor judgment in one or more areas of their personal or political lives, are likely to be threatened by such a change.

If we citizens changed our beliefs, and presidents changed their behavior, a presidential resignation would not necessarily be seen as a sign that the incumbent was one step from the paddy wagon, but rather that the president was willing to put the interests of his country and party above personal considerations of pride and comfort in office. Such a president might be viewed more kindly by history than one who overstayed his or her welcome.

Changed public expectations and changed presidential behavior won’t come easily or quickly. But change can and should come. And now seems like a pretty good time to start.