McCain Ignores Delicate Balance

George Will

5/29/2008 12:01:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- Most improvements make matters worse because most new ideas are regrettable, including this not-quite-new one from John McCain's speech depicting how improved America will be after four years of him: "I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons."

But prime ministers sit in the House because Britain's system of government is not based, as ours is, on separation of powers. Granted, America's separation of legislative and executive powers has become blurred. Legislators overextended by their incontinent involvement in everything, and preoccupied with re-election, do more delegating than legislating: Often the "laws" they pass are expressions of sentiments or aspirations that executive branch rulemaking turns into real laws. McCain's proposal would further diminish Congress' dignity by deepening the perception of its subordination.

Our constitutional architecture of checks and balances, as explained by the principal architect, James Madison, is: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." This design was supposed to serve various governmental functions -- especially the protection of individuals' rights from government made overbearing by the concentration of too much power in one branch.

But the interests -- primarily electoral -- of legislators have become tenuously connected to the defense of the rights of their place. They are passive about courts setting social policies and supine when presidents act with anti-constitutional independence, especially regarding national security. Routine presidential appearances in Congress, of the sort McCain proposes, would further reduce that institution to just another of the stages on which presidents preen.

President McCain would not lack ways and venues for conversing with legislators without reducing Congress to a prop in a skit of president-centrism. Besides, McCain's purpose would be to communicate not with Congress but with the public. A television audience might pay attention, briefly, because of the novelty of a president playing Daniel in the lions' den. But novelty is a perishable attribute, and presidents nowadays are never imperiled Daniels, least of all among legislators, who are rarely lions, other than when abusing unpopular persons (e.g., oil industry executives) testifying in positions of weakness. Jaded by their intimacy with modern presidents, who are incessantly in the nation's living rooms, Americans would soon vote with their remotes against the soon-to-be banal sight of McCain charging up Capitol Hill as his hero Teddy Roosevelt did up San Juan Hill.

Before TR, presidents communicated mostly with the legislative branch, not the public, and mostly in writing. Jeffrey Tulis of the University of Texas, in his mind-opening book "The Rhetorical Presidency," says the Founders' theory of constitutional propriety strongly disapproved of presidential rhetoric used to move the public, other than patriotic orations on ceremonial occasions. Statesmen were supposed to serve as brakes upon, not arousers of, public opinion.

For a century now, however, Americans have embraced the plebiscitary presidency. But the swollen nature of that institution can be made worse, as with McCain's idea, for which there is a kind of precedent.

In a 2003 essay, Tulis said that under George Washington the constitutional requirement that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union" was a ceremonial dialogue. Washington reported in person, then both houses debated his message and drafted replies. Each was delivered, at different times, to him at his residence and he replied to the replies.

Jefferson considered it monarchical for the president to lecture the legislature, so he submitted a written report, as did every subsequent president until Woodrow Wilson. He was the first president to criticize the Framers' constitutional system of checks and balances as an outmoded impediment to presidents' freedom.

Today the State of the Union address is delivered over the heads of Congress, to the television audience. Truman was the first to deliver it on television, Johnson the first to place it in prime time, where it has become a spectacle that further miniaturizes Congress -- the president's supporters repeatedly leaping up to bray approval while opposition members, their "response" already taped, sit in ostentatious sullenness.

This does not augur well for McCain's plan for another ceremony of inter-branch dialogue. Congress should remind a President McCain that the 16 blocks separating the Capitol from the White House nicely express the nation's constitutional geography.