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Belmont Club

Bad manners

November 22nd, 2008 - 11:59 pm

Gail Collins of the NYT makes what she thinks is is a clever proposal: she wants President Bush and Dick Cheney to resign so that Barack Obama can take over right away. The Gateway Pundit has video of Chris Matthews proposing essentially the same thing.

Thanksgiving is next week, and President Bush could make it a really special holiday by resigning. Seriously. We have an economy that’s crashing and a vacuum at the top. Bush — who is currently on a trip to Peru to meet with Asian leaders who no longer care what he thinks — hasn’t got the clout, or possibly even the energy, to do anything useful. His most recent contribution to resolving the fiscal crisis was lecturing representatives of the world’s most important economies on the glories of free-market capitalism.

Putting Barack Obama in charge immediately isn’t impossible. Dick Cheney, obviously, would have to quit as well as Bush. In fact, just to be on the safe side, the vice president ought to turn in his resignation first. (We’re desperate, but not crazy.) Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become president until Jan. 20. Obviously, she’d defer to her party’s incoming chief executive, and Barack Obama could begin governing.

Since Barack Obama himself has made no such demand and has the good sense not to make it, why should anyone care about the likes of Collins and Matthews? One reason is that they are engaged in a very public display of their bad manners and bad manners are contagious. Manners play an important part in civic life. Why do we stand in line at a buffet and not rush to the front if we can get away with it? Why do we observe rope barriers when it would be easy to duck under it or jump over them? Because it isn’t the done thing. The Collins and Matthews proposal to install Obama in office right away if they could get away with it is in many ways like shouting that in a cafeteria queue that it would be better to clamber over the steam tables because you’re in a hurry to eat. JJ McNab observed that most things happen through voluntary compliance.

You’re in your car approaching an intersection, and the traffic light is red. As you near the intersection, you look both ways and see that if you don’t stop, the approaching cars are far enough away that you’ll make it safely through the intersection. So why do you stop? Because you risk getting an expensive ticket if you don’t and because if there were no traffic laws at all, travel by car would end up impossible in all but the most rural areas. This is an example of voluntary compliance. You’re volunteering to stop at the light, but if you don’t, you’ll be fined by the traffic court and may even lose your license if you try it too often. It’s an honor system that has consequences if you cheat.

In a world with absolutely no manners stanchions, ropes, signs, tapes, would have to be replaced by barbed wire, concrete walls, minefields and other truly impermeable barriers. Until Franklin Roosevelt there was no actual prohibition against a President seeking more than two terms.

Historians point to George Washington’s decision not to seek a third term as evidence that the Founders saw a two-term limit as convention and a bulwark against a monarchy; his Farewell Address, however, suggests that it was because of his age that he did not seek reelection. Thomas Jefferson also contributed to the convention of a two-term limit; in 1807 he wrote, “if some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life.” Jefferson’s immediate successors, James Madison and James Monroe, also adhered to the two-term principle.

One day Barack Obama’s term of office will expire. But it should expire not a day less than than the duration for which he was elected and not a day more. There may be clever ways to get Barack Obama into office sooner than inauguration day, but it is bad manners to ask.

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