Calling for the protection of the Constitution and the vision that guided the Founding Fathers is a common theme in speeches in this year’s presidential campaign. In practice, however, these campaigns have little resemblance to that original vision. The Framers sought to fashion a presidential selection process above politics in which the office would seek the individual, rather than the individual seeking the office. They envisioned that the leader best suited in terms of integrity and demonstrated record of service to lead the entire nation would emerge.
The perpetual campaign which has now become a full blown affair for the last two years of every presidential term stands in stark contrast to the view expressed by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68 when he described the intended presidential selection process as one to afford as little opportunity for “tumult and disorder” and warned against “heats and ferments” and “cabals, intrigue and corruption.” The original intent of the Framers, as given expression in the Electoral College, is wholly inconsistent with the reality of modern campaigns and with Citizens United no matter how “people” is defined.
As an exasperated American voter, I looked with some envy at the example of Germany in the election of its new president, Joachim Gauck. Yes, it is true that the German presidency is largely ceremonial. Yes, it is true that the last two selection processes in Germany had their flaws. And yes, it is even true that the recent nomination process was not without some power politics in the background. What is inspiring is how in just two days, five political parties – conservative and liberal, coalition and official opposition –were able to reach a consensus on someone who could serve as a symbol for all Germans. Mr. Gauck, who is not a member of any political party and who is a self-described “liberal conservative” has been called the “Havel of Germany” due to his advocacy of democracy and human rights.
This is a refreshing contrast to the US political system where a candidate has to adhere to checklists of ideological truths – both real and mythical – to get through an increasingly polarizing selection process. Mr. Gauck disagrees on major issues with the very two parties that originally proposed him. Mr. Gauck is a proponent of market economics and reform of the social welfare system and criticized the Occupy movement to the consternation of some on the left. Mr. Gauck is also at odds with the Greens in comments he made on immigration and in criticizing protesters to a major infrastructure project who were central to the Greens major electoral victory in 2011. Yet, the two left-center parties were not trying to find lockstep agreement, they were looking for the most eminent person to represent all Germans. As Jürgen Tritten, the floor leader of the Greens has stated, “I am almost certain that I will be annoyed every now and then with a President Gauck.” Yet, the support for Gauck which is strong across all segments of the population is particularly strong with those identifying themselves as Green. Mr. Gauck was elected on March 18 with over 80% of the vote of the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) that was convened for this purpose, a body that in purpose and operation is not that far removed from the US Electoral College as initially envisioned.
Back to America
In 1982, 58 Senators and 344 Members of Congress had voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. Today those numbers have fallen to zero and 16. Today it takes sixty votes in the Senate to do anything major, but the perpetual campaign and 24/7 news cycle make it difficult for the parties to make hard choices even when they do have the votes. The Framers’ system of checks and balances (and balance implies compromise) has devolved into one of checks and check mates. We can have no assurance that after spending two years and over one billion dollars to elect a president in 2012 that the election will matter, since an informal system of electoral nullification seems to be coming part of the landscape. Is it any wonder that a recent Rasmussen poll indicated that 43% of Americans out of frustration answered that Congress would work better if comprised of people selected randomly from the phone book?
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against the “baneful effects” of faction that put “in place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party” and particular interest rather than “consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” It is too much to hope that the political genie first unleashed in the elections of 1796 and 1800 can ever be put completely back in the bottle. Yet, the daunting problems we face require a more intellectually honest discourse and a political process that seeks common ground in forging workable solutions to common problems than yielded by the modern campaign. Although the mechanics will be different than those developed by the Framers, we do need to get back more to their original principles in the reform of the political process that future of the country requires. It is time to Gauck Washington.