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Don’t blame us for Clinton woes

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, August 16, 1994

As President Clinton continues to sink in the polls, pro-Clinton and pro-activist government pundits are beginning to blame the American people for Clinton’s political problems. Example: Respected Washington columnist William Raspberry recently opined that Americans are too obsessed with fitness for office and too little concerned about performance in office. Europeans, he said, don’t get hung up on fitness issues.

This merits examination.

First, there is a big difference between an American president and a European prime minister. A European prime minister is simply a head of government. An American president is both head of government and chief of state. So, for better or worse, 205 years ago the American system of government uniquely combined in one institution, the presidency, the nation’s top politician and the symbol of national sovereignty, a role heretofore reserved to the monarchy.

In fact, there are few differences between Europeans and Americans in how we evaluate our chiefs of state — and the test of fitness is perhaps the most important in both political cultures. Consider the way the European press and public are scrutinizing Prince Charles and Princess Di in Great Britain. Or read the press in Norway, Japan, or any other of the world’s remaining monarchies. Fitness is paramount.

Both Americans and Europeans want their chiefs of state to show character, honor, respect, a sense of duty, truthfulness, predictability — and to play by the rules. These are common criteria for evaluating a chief of state, but perhaps not for assessing the nation’s top politician. We judge our politicians by his or her cunning or ability to get things done or to keep a lid on things or to win a war — whatever the challenge.

The problem: In the U.S., the nation’s top politician also gets judged as the nation’s monarch would be judged in other countries. That’s why an American president comes under more scrutiny. The emphasis on fitness is not because Americans have an obsessive concern about character. Concern about character and fitness among the public and the press is embedded in the Constitution and the nature of the institution of the presidency.

Second, why do we always compare ourselves to the Europeans? Whether it’s health care, taxes or the parliamentary form of government, which dominates most of Europe, American commentators seemed obsessed by European standards.

Why, for example, should we admire European heads of government for their performance, as Rasp berry suggests? They have presided over more than two centuries of bloody, genocidal civil wars. In the last century, they created a mess in Africa. Since WW II, they have expanded government and taxed jobs to the point that their economies cannot compete, and unemployment reaches double digits in nearly every country. Result: The tourniquet of taxes and red tape that surrounds nearly every European society has shut off the life blood of innovation and entrepreneurism. That’s not a record we should want to emulate.

So, Bill Clinton’s problems with the American public are Bill Clinton’s problems — not the American people’s. It’s not too much press scrutiny or societal malaise or lack of European sophistication among Americans that accounts for Bill Clinton’s problems. The problem is Bill Clinton’s fitness for an office where fitness counts.

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