Proposed: The Alternating Six-Year Presidency

15Oct11

Politics, at its best, is the art of the possible.  Good or bad, there’s no getting away from it.  But that doesn’t mean political behavior can’t be relocated away from situations where it does not yield good outcomes.

The election of the American president is a huge, distracting, expensive, and corrupt process that is capable of putting a complete idiot into the White House.  People are apt to entertain some sympathy with that statement regardless of their political leanings.  You look at some of the outcomes and you have to wonder how so much time, effort, money, anger, and anxiety can produce such mixed results.

In the 100 years from 1912 through 2011, we have had 17 presidents:  Wilson (D, 8 years), Harding (R, 2 years), Coolidge (R, 6 years), Hoover (R, 4 years), Roosevelt (D, 12 years), Truman (D, 8 years), Eisenhower (R, 8 years), Kennedy (D, 3 years), Johnson (D, 5 years), Nixon (R, 5 years), Ford (R, 3 years), Carter (D, 4 years), Reagan (R, 8 years), Bush Sr. (R, 4 years), Clinton (D, 8 years), Bush Jr. (R, 8 years), and Obama (D, 4 years).  That’s an average of 5.9 years per president.  Granted, death has terminated a few presidencies prematurely.  The average would have been somewhat longer without that.  Still, after all our election-year struggles, on average we are still quite close to the outcome we’d have had if, as in some countries, our presidents had been elected for single six-year terms.

In addition, during the past century, of those 17 presidents, eight have been Democrats and nine have been Republicans.  That’s what you’d be likely to get from just flipping a coin.  Moreover, the victorious party has changed back and forth pretty regularly.  There haven’t been any really long runs, any instances of one party remaining in power for 30 years or more at a stretch.  Except for Reagan and Bush Sr., the only times that either party has held the presidency for 12 years or more was during the extraordinary decades of the 1920s through the 1940s.  It seems unlikely that that would have happened if the Republicans hadn’t so thoroughly tarnished themselves by leading us into the Great Depression, and if World War II hadn’t created such an unusual pressure for steadiness and solidarity behind the incumbent.  In general, the pattern of the past century suggests that, after a certain point, people want change.

In theory, a shorter term makes it easier to dump a loser before he can do too much damage.  But there’s a problem with that theory.  If there’s a serious risk that the president will turn out to be a loser, then why make him/her eligible for election in the first place?  In other words, the best way to protect against an incompetent president is to improve the process by which people are identified and promoted as potential presidents.  Give us ten years of watching the person working in various positions on the national level (as e.g., a governor, a National Security Advisor), and there will rarely be a need for a four-year safety valve.

Besides, many people in either party are inclined to doubt that the four-year valve has been working effectively.  The advantages of the incumbent have been such as to enable him to achieve re-election despite some prospect that we would have been better off without that.  For purposes of achieving their best and then moving on, one six-year term would have been plenty for Nixon and Bush Jr., and probably about right for Reagan and Clinton.  And if Obama were now halfway through his six-year term, we would not already see a nation gearing up for another tiresome election battle.

It has been argued that the pursuit of re-election keeps a president focused on what the large majority of the public wants.  But it is also a matter of tremendous distraction and manipulation.  Besides, what people want is a complex matter.  The public has congressional representatives whose job is to attend to public opinion.  That’s one priority.  It is not, unfortunately, a perfect all-purpose priority.  There are times and situations in which public opinion can be manipulated; there are many situations in which the public cannot be told, or is not interested in hearing, the full truth behind a nasty situation.

People elect the president to be a leader, not an ass-kisser — to lead into the unknown, not to follow and tell people whatever they want to hear at the current moment.  Again, if you’re concerned that the president will take off on some wild tangent, then require a ten-year record of national-level experience before s/he can become a candidate.  People with that experience, be it George Bush Sr. or Hillary Clinton, tend to have learned lessons about the prudent use of power.

What many voters experience, come Election Day, is that the important decisions have already been made.  The people who could have been great presidents are not on the ballot; instead, we are often left with characters who, we feel, surely cannot be the most experienced and competent candidates that could have been found in this nation.  In the spirit of moving the political focus to more appropriate areas of involvement, the election system should be steering public attention to the selection phase.

As it now stands, presidential candidates are selected in a process that emphasizes the ability to be appealing to voters over a short period of time, in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.  This arrangement allows a nobody, with luck, to win the presidency.  That is absurd.  Someone should be able to come from nowhere to win election to Congress, no doubt, or to become a governor or the chief executive of a corporation.  But that’s just the starting point for a presidential candidate.  The next step, having achieved some such position, is to hold it and to demonstrate an ability to do amazing things in it.

So let’s suppose we did have a six-year alternating presidency.  Obama, a Democrat, was elected in 2008; therefore we know that the person elected president in 2014 will be a Republican.  This turns our focus to the more important question:  which Republican?  That is a question for voters — all voters, including Democrats — to decide, ultimately; but they deserve to choose from the best names possible.

Here’s one scenario for how that might work.  The ballot in 2014 includes the names of four Republicans, plus whatever candidates might be put up by the Green Party, the  Libertarian Party, and so forth.  If ever those parties move up from fringe status, the scenario presented here might have to be adjusted; but in 2014, that would not likely be an issue.  There would be a total of four major-party candidates on the ballot, rather than two, because sometimes people change their minds with new information.  Here, again, there is a focus on preserving meaningful choices.

How would those four Republican semifinalists be chosen?  Two would be nominated by the Republican Party; two would be nominated by the Democrats.   This would tend to mean that there would be two moderate Republican semifinalists on the 2014 ballot, nominated by Democrats, along with two more right-wing Republican semifinalists, nominated by the Republican Party.  The public would still be guaranteed to get a Republican president in 2014, but would have the option of choosing a centrist Republican who might not be terribly different from a centrist Democrat on many issues.

To a large extent, each party would arrive at its own way of identifying its two Republican semifinalists.  For instance, the Republicans might choose their two semifinalists from a quarterfinal slate of five Republicans.  One among those five might have been nominated by business leaders; another might have been nominated by religious leaders.  However chosen, the Republican primary election in spring 2014 would cut the list from five down to two.  Similar processes would occur on the Democrat side, perhaps with one Republican quarterfinalist being nominated by university professors, another being nominated by labor representatives, and so forth.

This process could have the beneficial effect of putting Democrats more in touch with differences among Republicans, and vice versa in 2020.  It is not unrealistic that members of each party should care about, and have some influence in, the continuing broad relevance of the opposing party, rather than letting it become either a useless collection of extremists or an equally useless monolith of plain-vanilla centrism.  In short, the general public would tend to be kept more in touch with a variety of viewpoints, reducing the mutual incomprehension and hostility that now plague presidential elections.

To back up one step further, if an interest group weighting K-12 teachers, university professors, and other educators knew that they were going to be able to select a candidate that might become the next president, they might be expected to take an interest in making a well-researched choice among the various Republicans whom they could tolerate as the next president.  That is, rather than leave the selection of primary candidates entirely to a crazy hash of political and financial influences, there might be a rather intelligent and earnest attempt to develop their information and prepare for the start of primary season in, say, November 2013.  At that point, they and the other Democratic interest groups would give the public the information on which they based their selection of one of the five quarterfinalists nominated by Democrats.  Between then and the primary election in spring 2014, the media and the public would have an opportunity to digest this information and sharpen the choice among those five quarterfinalists.  Similar processes would meanwhile be underway in the Republican party, regarding their own set of five Republican quarterfinalists.

To summarize, the purpose of this proposal is, as stated at the outset, to make the selection of the American president less political and more effective.  The general idea presented here is that the public would choose the president from among four semifinalists of the same party (Republicans, in 2014), with two of those four being selected in the Democrat primary in spring 2014 and the other two emerging from the Republican primary.  Each of these major-party primaries would help voters to choose from among a larger number of (in this account, ten) Republican quarterfinalists nominated by leading interest groups in the two major parties.  In net terms, this arrangement could be structured to depoliticize presidential elections, to steer such elections away from the distortions of national media and money, to give the public greater input into the process, and to base candidate selection upon hard information rather than upon showmanship.

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