The Magazine

POTUS on Horseback

Which comes first, the party or the president?

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Burns's implausible answer is that the Republicans have become a conservative party, but the Democrats have not become a correspondingly liberal party. Republicans have replaced Democrats as the governing party by becoming "the solidly conservative party we know today," so that voters know where Republicans stand. Democrats must offer (to borrow a phrase from the past) a choice, not an echo: "The leading discouragement to voting is the belief that 'Parties are alike.'" So Democrats must make it clear that the crucial choice between the parties "will have an effect on [voters'] lives" by mobilizing a "new majority of forgotten men and women, . . . tens of millions of the unequal and the unempowered."

How, in practice, would Democrats accomplish this? Burns has nothing to say about policy proposals that Democrats should advance, apart from the following bromide: "Demo crats must modernize and sharpen the durable economic issues of old: jobs, wages, education, women's rights, health. But more than that, they must send a strong, overarching message, with policy proposals set in a larger frame of liberal values."

Furthermore, why should anyone believe in the existence of a leftist silent majority? Burns simply ignores survey research that consistently shows that there are far more self-described conservatives than liberals in America: A third of Americans claim to be conservative, but only a fifth claim to be liberal (with almost half claiming to be moderate).

Burns concludes by advocating drastic changes to the American political system which, in effect, would make it a parliamentary system:

Candidates for the presidency, Senate, and House would run together on party slates, just as the president and vice president presently do. Voters would cast their ballots for these slates, not individual candidates. Such an amendment would discourage politicians from running alone, apart from their parties. Candidates for both executive and legislative offices would have to cooperate in shaping a united campaign strategy and platform.

This radical constitutional change usefully points to the tension between the two understandings of what it means to "run alone." The alteration would clearly cement party loyalty and reduce intraparty conflict; but then both parties have already become far more homogeneous of late. On the other hand, if "running alone" means that presidents fail when they ignore opposition to their plans, the change would worsen matters: Members of Congress from the president's party would be discouraged from voting against (or even pointing to problems with) legislation supported by the president. You can have a more partisan presidency, and you can have one in which presidents are more likely to hear (whether or not they choose to heed) dissenting voices. But you can't have both simultaneously.

A final irony should be noted. As Burns realizes, one result of his plan would be to abolish midterm elections. In principle Burns supports their abolition, because they "historically [have] almost always caused the president to lose support in Congress and increased the chances of deadlock." Since Burns is a Democratic partisan, one wonders whether the results of the recent election have led him to second thoughts on this issue. Isn't it sometimes a good thing when presidents lose support in Congress, increasing the chances of deadlock? But this question should transcend partisanship. From a Democratic or Republican standpoint, enabling voters to produce divided government in any particular election may be undesirable; from a democratic and republican standpoint, however, it seems highly desirable.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.