The more thoughtful half of the Bush-Quayle team has recently been brimming over with thoughts, two of which merit more amplification than he gave them. Quayle says Perot "has contempt for the Constitution." And Quayle says the election of Perot would deepen the problem of "the deadlock between the elected branches" of the government. "So let us return to the tried and true. Let us elect a President-Republican or Democrat-and give him a Congress that responds to presidential leadership."
Perot, whose preferred rhetorical mode is the murky expostulation, is what used to be called a blatherskite. There is an inverse relationship between the confidence he has in his opinions and the care he has taken in forming them. Consider this doozy of a Perotism: "Germany and Japan are winning. Why are they winning? They got new constitutions in 1945. This was a time when the industrial revolution had occurred. Our Constitution was written 200 years ago, before it occurred." Leaving aside the fuzzy, panicky notion that Germany and Japan are "winning," what is Perots point? That our Constitution is incompatible with industrialism? Tell that to Carnegie and all the other industrialists who had nothing to learn from Perot about making things and money. What does he think the modern world requires that our Constitution prevents?
Ignorance of constitutional values, rather than contempt for them, probably explains Perots plan to pass "a law" that ,'says Congress cannot raise taxes," and his desire for referendums (on raising taxes, on use of military force) that would be, to say no more, extra-constitutional. His thinking-or, lacking evidence of such, his talking-does suggest deep-seated impatience with the Constitution's purposeful patterns of indirectness. The principles of representation and separation of powers are supposed to conduce to deliberation--deliberate rather than precipitate behavior. The government's divided structure is designed to produce a measured pace compatible with thoughtful and prudent behavior by the few who are elected to act for the many. Perots urge to give government a plebiscitary cast conflicts with the Founders' aspirations. But so does Quayle's supposedly "tried and true" theory of presidential " leadership" to which Congress "responds."
The Founders tried to constitute deliberative democracy which would filter the public's unformed sentiments and give them shape and the weight of reasonableness. Such democracy requires that the deliberative body-Congress, as the Founders hoped it would be--enjoy at least equal status with the presidency. It requires presidents to deliberate with Congress rather than expect Congress to "respond" to leadership as a horse responds to a bit and bridle.
What Quayle considers traditional, and people seem to desire, is neither traditional nor desirable. It is what Jeffrey Tulis calls, in his brilliant book with this title, "the rhetorical presidency." It is the presidency serving as the sun around which American government, indeed America's consciousness, supposedly should orbit. But today's clamor for "leadership" would have dismayed the Founders, for many of whom "popular leader" was synonymous with "demagogue." The term "leader" appears 12 times in The Federalist papers, and is used disparagingly 11 times. (The other reference is to leaders of the Revolution.) The Founders believed presidential appeals to, and manipulation of, public opinion would be an anti-constitutional pre-emption of deliberative processes. Thus there was, until this century, " 'a common law' of rhetoric." Presidents spoke infrequently and about little. Washington averaged just three popular speeches a year; Adams, one; Jefferson, five. Madison, president during a war that burned his house, gave none. The 24 presidents prior to Theodore Roosevelt gave about 1,000 speeches, but more than half of these were by three presidents (Hayes, Harrison, McKinley).
Until the 20th century, presidents communicated primarily with the legislative branch, not "the people," and communicated in written messages suitable for deliberative reasoning. Then modern technologies of transportation and communication gave presidents new capacities, and Woodrow Wilson supplied a theory for using them. Presidents, he said, should engage in "interpretation," meaning the discovery of what is in the hearts of the masses--or would be there if the masses were sensible. Soon presidents were everywhere, moving about, by railroad and then airplane. They were in the air by radio, then television. America was on its way to today's notion of the president as tribune of the people, constant auditor of the nation's psyche, molder of the public mind.
Perots impatience with inhibiting institutions and shaping structures echoes the complaints of many Progressives and New Dealers, who considered the Constitution an outmoded impediment to decisive, vigorous government. Quayle's call for a Congress responsive to presidential "leadership" echoes Woodrow Wilson, who was the bridge between the Progressives and the modern presidency that was consolidated during the New Deal.
The Founders' philosophy has not recently been tried but is still true. Employing the principle of representation-the people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide-and the separation of powers, the Framers constructed constitutional distance between the government and the governed. Their hope was that deliberative processes could, in Madison's words, "refine and enlarge the public views" and produce "the cool and deliberate sense of the community." This is why they made Congress the First Branch of government, Article One in the Constitution.
But today's slatternly Congress, its members sunk in careerism, exemplifies the degradation of democracy into a mere maelstrom of appetites. As Congress has lost esteem, including self-esteem, the presidency has become the nation's obsession. Trouble is, most presidents are mediocre. And when the weight of Wilsonian expectations is put upon a figure as flimsy as George Bush, the presidency buckles and the nation becomes susceptible to Perots watery Caesarism. This is the bitter fruit of our disrespect for our 18th-century Founders. And it may be a glimpse of what the 21st century has up its nasty sleeve.