In The Price of Politics, journalist Bob Woodward describes the toll that politics took on the presidency and public image of Barack Obama during the budget battle of 2011. Elected as an outsider with little experience in governing and none in executive leadership, Woodward’s Obama is ill-equipped to handle the byzantine ways of Washington. The result is a tarnished president, a nation brought needlessly to the brink of credit default, and a sharp diminution of public trust.
While valuable as a fly-on-the-wall account of a momentous battle, Woodward’s book overlooks the real price of politics in Washington. By focusing on personalities rather than enduring power relations, it obscures the fact that in America, we regularly burden our politicians by requiring a government built for limited purposes to tackle an endless array of modern demands. Our government’s chronic failure to meet our expectations is the price we pay.
A case in point is Obamacare. It is tempting to write off the disaster that is the Affordable Care Act as a product of congressional and presidential malpractice, but that would be facile. The reality is that the terrible defects of the president’s health care bill are the sorts of excesses you would expect to see under our system as it has evolved.
Despite the intense ideological and partisan divisions that characterize our politics, there is considerable agreement on the broad contours of policy. Just about everybody believes that the federal government has some responsibility for the public welfare. The differences between the two sides are primarily a matter of degree: Liberals have much more faith than conservatives in the government’s ability to secure the public good.
Too often, debate over what government should do takes place in the abstract. But the particulars of the American system are relevant. Our government was never meant to accomplish the grand, bold tasks that both sides today believe it should. There is a reason why Congress and the courts, for instance, have had to expand the meaning of the interstate commerce clause almost to the point of absurdity: This is the only way around what was intended to be, and was sold to skeptical citizens at the time as, a limited grant of power. And the institutional structure of the government—a president, the courts, two chambers of Congress, all connected via checks and balances—was designed to manage only those limited powers.
What we the people have done over and over since ratifying the Constitution is expand the power of the federal government without revising its structure. Americans started doing this all the way back in 1790, when Alexander Hamilton read the Constitution as granting Congress the power to charter a bank, even though the Constitutional Convention had voted down that very idea. As Washington’s reach has been extended, instead of overhauling the structure, we have merely tinkered at the margins, modifying the Electoral College, instituting direct election of senators, limiting presidential terms, and so on.
The result is a profound mismatch. We expect an essentially pluralistic government to behave as a national one. It cannot do this, and so public policy is characterized by inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and even at times injustice.
James Madison thought factionalism was inevitable, and he feared some groups would dominate at the expense of the public good or private rights. So he offset a vast array of competing interests via a structure that is inherently defensive. Under Madisonian pluralism, power is distributed so that all factions have a seat at the table of government, and the likelihood of abuse by an aggressive majority is curbed. But today we expect our government to be not pluralistic and defensive, but national and active; Uncle Sam is somehow supposed to cut through parochial interests and advance the interests of the country. That is unreasonable.
In reality, bold federal endeavors require costly side deals with well-positioned factions, which must be bought off, regardless of whether their positions are good for the country or their exacting ransom is bad for the country. Our system gives them a veto, leverage to exact a fee from Uncle Sam. That is the real price of politics. Sometimes these fees simply make programs cost more than they otherwise would. Sometimes they undermine the original goals of an initiative. And sometimes they harm innocent citizens who should be the beneficiaries of public policy.