06 February 2008

Choosing a president

Because there is little overlap between my blog readership and my Christian Courier readership, I am taking the liberty of posting below my next column, to appear in the 18 February issue of the latter. This is to follow up yesterday's Super Tuesday elections in the US:

When I was growing up near Chicago, I used to get caught up, along with my fellow citizens, in the excitement of the quadrennial presidential race. The first such campaign I remember was in 1960, when Senator John Kennedy ran against Vice-President Richard Nixon. Although I did not see the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy did score a victory over Nixon by speaking to the American people rather than to his opponent. Thus image seemingly triumphed over substance.

Nearly half a century later, I must admit to finding the entire exercise off-putting. Since the “reforms” of 35 years ago, selection of a presidential candidate no longer belongs to party regulars at the convention, but to the people in the series of state party caucuses and primary elections that are increasingly being pushed to the start of the calendar year. Although this appears to be more democratic, it has actually gone a considerable way towards eroding just governance in the US. Why?

First, it has encouraged Americans to view a prospective president as an heroic, napoleonic figure who will sweep into office and shake things up in the stale corridors of political power. The candidate promises “change” without going into too much detail as to what this implies. Because no one person can ever fulfil such exaggerated expectations, the public quickly sours on him or her, waiting for the next candidate to come along making similar promises.

Yet this scenario fails to do justice to the complexities of a real-life political system, where getting things done demands, not a well-intended Jimmy Stuart going to Washington in the style of a Frank Capra film, but genuine teamwork painstakingly cultivated by a president and like-minded members of Congress for the sake of doing public justice. It would be far better to hear from a candidate, not what she will do as president, as if she had no one else to answer to, but how she and like-minded Senators and Representatives would go about meeting the ordinary challenges of governing a country.

Take the Ron Paul phenomenon as an example. Paul has acquired a small but dedicated following, capturing the imaginations of libertarians favouring a restricted reading of the Constitution. Paul favours eliminating the federal income tax, and opposes US participation in the United Nations and even NATO. He advocates abolition of many federal departments and the Federal Reserve Board, the American counterpart to the Bank of Canada. That these positions are out of the mainstream is beside the point. The fact is that Paul does not command even a modest base of support in Congress and thus has next to no chance of accomplishing his goals even if he should become president. Yet this in no way fazes him or his dedicated supporters.

Second, the current process does little in the way to eliminate candidates who are unqualified for the chief executive office. All that is necessary for a would-be candidate to win his or her party’s nomination is to appeal successfully to as many people in as many states as he can, especially the most populous ones. At present there is no means of filtering out incompetents. A party is obligated to go with a candidate who has cultivated the best image in what is essentially a series of beauty contests.

In 1986, for example, in my home state of Illinois two disciples of the political extremist Lyndon Larouche won the Democratic nomination for two state offices, mostly because their names (Janice Hart and Mark Fairchild) sounded safe. Party officials were powerless to remove them from the ballot. One-time presidential candidate Al Smith was wrong when he said in 1933 that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Instead, democracy’s flaws must be addressed by recognizing that it cannot be extended limitlessly.

Given what is at stake, the two American political parties would do well to rectify these defects, principally by giving primary elections an advisory status at most and by encouraging aspirants to the presidency to build a strong base of support in Congress.

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