The Big Flaw in Our System
Jean-Claude Juncker is probably not a household name in your household. There is no particular reason it should be, though Mr. Juncker is a fairly big deal in Europe.
He has been the prime minister of Luxembourg since 1995, making him the longest-serving democratically elected head of state in the world. He also had much to do with the development of the economic elements of the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the euro.
The only reason I point all this out is because Mr. Juncker has made the most succinct and self-confessional statement of what ails Western democracies that I have ever seen. "We all know what to do," he said; "we just don't know how to get re-elected after we have done it."
I don't know anything about the politics of Luxembourg, but Mr. Juncker's longevity in office would seem to indicate that he knows his stuff. Politicians ignore what I shall henceforth call Juncker's Law at their peril.
Take Italy, for example. The cover of last week's edition of The Economist featured photos of Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi under the headline "Send in the Clowns." Mr. Grillo is an Italian stand-up comic, and Mr. Berlusconi is the 76-year-old political comic, former prime minister, media mogul, subject of both sex and tax scandals recently sentenced to a year in prison who is largely responsible for the mess Italy is currently in.
What these two have in common is that they both won substantial support in the recent Italian election that saw former Prime Minister Mario Monti's government collapse into chaos.
Mr. Monti, you will recall, had been trying to force Italy onto something like a responsible fiscal path to halt that country's debt spiral and keep the euro alive.
The Italians don't like austerity, and, just as Mr. Juncker suggested, when Mr. Monti did what he knew he should, he was not re-elected. Italian politics being what they are, it will probably not be long before a new round of electoral confusion arises.
The same sort of situation applies after France's recent return to left-wing governance, as well as to the rest of Mediterranean Europe. Northern Europeans have been more willing to take their medicine, though they may still draw the line at bailing out their southern neighbors.
As is becoming increasingly clear, we on this side of the pond are in no position to gloat. It is probably true that at least most of our politicians in Washington know what to do; they just won't do it - evidence once again, as if it were needed, of the shortcomings of our Constitution regarding the election cycle and term limits. The cycle, particularly in the House, is too short, and unlimited terms have allowed a political oligarchy to evolve.
It is not helpful that Republican Senate leaders are up for re-election in 2014, as is House Speaker John Boehner. They all like their jobs, and their interest in re-election deters them from making even a suggestion of anything that might look like a tax increase. The same can be said of Democrats wedded to spending.
In all of Washington, there is only one elected official who we know for certain will never be re-elected; one person who can step on some toes with impunity; who can actually advocate rational solutions, not only to our fiscal mess, but to all the other issues facing us. In case you haven't read the 22nd Amendment lately, that person is, generically, the president of the United States, in this case, Barack Obama.
So, in the absence of any electoral pressure whatsoever, what have we had? An eternal campaign.
Nothing makes me hit the remote control faster than the almost unavoidable face of the president as he makes yet another speech with Navy SEALs or cute kindergartners posed behind him.
His first contribution to deficit reduction could be to leave $181,000-per-hour Air Force One on the ground and try to get all those re-electable politicians to do something useful. It appears that he may now be making his first efforts in four years to do that.
Our entire political culture is both caused and threatened by Juncker's Law. The one person exempt from it should do everything he can to save its subjects in both parties from themselves, otherwise we might as well elect our own Beppe Grillo.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at fwolferman@ sbcglobal.net.
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