When White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler is not orchestrating economic sanctions against Iran, an Olympic boycott against the Soviet Union or otherwise lawyering for the president, he sometimes takes a moment off to polish (and occasionally deliver) The Speech.
It's called "To Form a Government" -- which is something the royal heads of Britain ask leaders of Parliament to do. And that is precisely Cutler's point: What we really need is not a president, with separate executive and legislative branches, but something much more closely resembling a parliamentary form of government.
An idle thought, you might say, at this golden hour for the Republicans in Detroit, when the electric organ music swells, the standards wave and everything seems possible: President Ronald Reagan, lower taxes, defense spending, peace, prosperity and a nice, neat, unobtrusive government under cooporate management. Only a churl would go around puncturing convention balloons.
But there is nothing churlish -- or personal -- in Cutler's argument. He thinks very little is possible for any president. "The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches," he maintains, "Has become a structure that almost guarantees stalemate today.
"If you wonder why we are having such a difficult time making decisions we all know must be made, and in projecting our power and leadership throughout this increasingly interdependent world, I would submit that this is one of the major reasons."
Now you can take that as a lawyer's brief for Cutler's current client -- it does sound a tad exculpatory of Jimmy Carter's performance as president. But you can also take it on its merits, as an informed opinion from an old Washington hand that owes far less to Cutler's past 10 months on the White House staff than it does to his 40 years as a richly rewarded corporate lawyer, a "pro bono" champion of worthy causes and a trouble-shooter for the government.
Take it as you may, the Cutler argument is well worth examining in an election year when the American public is disdainful of the presidential choices, down on government generally and deeply disturbed by this country's standing in the world.
Just possibly, one reason other Western democracies look relatively orderly and efficient to us, and we look erratic and unreliable to them, is that they have a better way of doing things. Cutler contends that the big difference -- what is missing in America and common to the parliamentary systems in, say, Britain, West Germany, Japan or Ireland -- is party discipline.
In each instance, he notes, "the executive consists of those members of the legislature chosen by the elected legislative majority. . . . At all times the voting public knows who is in charge, and whom to hold accountable for success or failure."
It is not necessary to labor the virtues, or pin-point the defects, of parliamentary government to see what Cutler is driving at: that American presidents lack the authority to enter into international treaties that will stick or give their own programs a decent trial over a reasonable period of time.
It is not a new problem: Woodrow Wilson was brooding on it long before he fell victim to it as president. But it has been sorely compounded, Cutler claims, in recent years. "Reform" has broken up the old congressional power centers and, in the process, shredded congressional responsibility.
The power of political parties has been eroded by the power of "single issue" groups, with "single issue" money. The big issues have gotten infinitely more complex, requiring what Cutler calls many more "allocative" choices between, let us say, clean air and energy self-sufficiency.
In foreign policy, the problem is more acute. A failure to ratify SALT II, for example, undermines foreign confidence in all our undertakings.. Instant developments (Iran, Afghanistan) require instant responses that may cost money -- military aid and increased defense spending. But in the absence of party discipline and responsibility, a consensus can be forged only in the face of truly "great crises."
What to do about it? The most Cutler would hope for is "a set of modest changes" to introduce some elements of parliamentary government. Examples: a proposal by which candidates for president, vice president and Congress would run as an entry in each district, thus tying the fortunes of all three together; a requirement that half of the Cabinet be sitting members of Congress; one, six-year term for president; procedures for the president or Congress (or both) to call for general elections when paralysis sets in.
But his aim is more to provoke public discussion than to prescribe remedies.
What he is saying from the White House inner circle is simply that if you want to be a really effective president at home or aboard, you can't get there from here.