Various talking heads (David Gergen on the Newshour, for one) have suggested that Bush needs to clean house of his advisors for a fresh start and bring in a new team (perhaps Gergen was using the Newshour to submit his application). Aside from Libby’s departure, that is unlikely, I think, unless Karl Rove is ultimately indicted, too.
But if our form of government were semi-presidential, instead of just presidential, that is precisely what would happen, and it would be salutary for the political system. Given the enormous influence that Vice President Dick Cheney has in this administration, it is not too much of a stretch to think of him as the closest thing we have to a Prime Minister. That would make Libby the Deputy Prime Minister. And if that were the case, this would be a cabinet crisis, rather than a crisis of an insider whom most Americans know little and care even less about.
Even Republicans have seemed queasy lately about the direction of this administration (or should I say its sudden lack of direction). Yet there is no regular, institutionalized means to effect a change in the management of the executive branch for another three years. The Vice President and his chief of staff are not subject to legislative confidence like a prime minister in a semi-presidential system is. The Vice President is not even really elected in the first place, given that no one votes for the VP candidate, who thus has little effect on the presidential election. Thus the policy influence of the Vice President gives us the worst of both worlds, because only the legal system (if anyone at all), and not the voters or their representatives, can hold the veep or his top aides accountable.
Naturally, even if we had a semi-presidential system, any replacement for Prime Minister Cheney (or even for just Deputy Prime Minister Libby) would be another Republican (assuming there would not be early elections and a change of party in power–an option that exists in most, but not all, semi-presidential systems, but can be invoked only by the president, not the opposition). Even so, replacement of the PM would be an opportunity for a fresh start that was actually meaningful, because it would be accountability before the people’s elected representatives, and not before prosecutors and juries, grand or otherwise.
Nor would semi-presidentialism be inconsistent with the Madisonian checks and balances format–a point I make in a forthcoming article in French Politics (to which I will link when it comes out; the journal has agreed to make it free, rather than subscriber-only). It would change the locus of some of the checks and balances, but retain them in a way that a shift to a parliamentary system (a total non-starter almost anywhere that has ever had a democratic presidential system, despite the entreaties of some political scientists) would not do.
(Finally, I have to note that I really had no intentions of blogging about Scooter Libby and the indictment–or rather, about the substantive issues at stake in the specific legal case. Yet one thing that is particularly amusing/infuriating about the process for me has been seeing some Republican talking heads–and at least one Senator– essentially say, with straight faces, that obstruction of justice and perjury are not really all that important after all. Ahem.)