Having lost his domestic agenda to Newt Gingrich and having given his foreign portfolio to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton has become the least consequential president since the 1920s. In part, presidential decline is a function of history. This is the first presidency since the '20s denied the political benefits bestowed by war or its moral equivalent. The Depression, World War II and the Cold War having inflated the presidency, its current decline was historically inevitable.
But history isn't everything. The crucial deflator of the Clinton presidency has been ideology. Not by nature a liberal _ Clinton has no ideology _ he fatally defined himself in the public eye as liberal with two decisions: starting his presidency with gays in the military and mortgaging his entire second year to a vast health care plan, self-consciously styled as the New Deal program of the '90s, that the country ended up rejecting like a foreign body.
Given the country's move to the right, and assuming the Republican Congress delivers even partially on its promises, the GOP is in position to become the country's governing party for many years. And governing parties need to take the long view, which means constitutional reordering.
Two such projects are on the Republican agenda. A third needs to be.
First is reducing the power of the federal government. The Contract with America promises to do so, principally through the balanced budget amendment, which will force massive cuts in the scope and power of the federal government. Take away $200-billion a year of deficit spending and all the discretionary excrescences of the federal government _ from public TV to the midnight basketball _ disappear.
Second, Republicans are intent on shifting power from Washington back to the states through the abolition of federal mandates, funded and unfunded.
Congress' third and perhaps most important project should be returning power to the president. However imperial the presidency might once have been, it has by now been thoroughly colonized by Congress. Clinton's ineffectiveness both at home and abroad is testimony not just to personal failings and tactical errors, but to a grievously weakened office, a weakness aggravated over the last 25 years by Democratic Congresses intent on cutting Republican presidents down to size.
The line-item veto _ promised by the Republicans, though some are pushing a weak watered-down version _ would restore some of the balance lost when Congress severely limited President Nixon's budgetary rescission authority (the right to spend less than Congress appropriates) in 1974. The most neglected area of congressional encroachment, however, is foreign policy. A Republican Congress should return the foreign policy prerogatives that Democratic Congresses have taken from the White House.
Congress can begin by repealing the War Powers Act, an ill-conceived Vietnam relic that has produced the worst of both worlds: Presidents publicly refusing to recognize it _ a well-advertised act of disrespect for Congress _ while at the same time often allowing their military actions to be shaped by the act's arbitrary restraints and timetables.
Congress can also get out of the business of earmarking foreign aid and micromanaging the Pentagon, giving the president more freedom to use both to shape a coherent national security policy. Most important, it should get out of the business of trying to dictate American policy toward such intractable conflicts as Bosnia. On the first day of the new Congress, Bob Dole introduced legislation that would inevitably force the president into a dangerous American intervention in Bosnia. This is not just bad policy _ Dole's plan would wreck NATO and enmesh the United States in a Balkan nightmare _ it is bad precedent: Congress is simply not the place from which to initiate and run foreign interventions.
Why should triumphant Republicans cede power to a Democratic president? Because restoring the presidency is a national need that transcends party. Because undertaking a reform that has the effect of boosting Bill Clinton demonstrates a principled concern for constitutional balance. And for those unmoved by such high-mindedness, there is another reason: If Republicans really have confidence in their current ascendancy, the White House will be theirs soon enough. Coming Republican administrations will profit greatly from the rearrangement.
Washington Post Writers Group