Charles and his King (or the Odd Musings of Krauthammer on the Presidential Nomination Process)
Cross-posted from PoliBlog:
Charles Krauthammer has a column in today’s WaPo in praise of what has become a two-year+ campaign for president: Two Years of Humble Pie.
He starts the piece with a dig at parliamentary systems wherein snap elections can be called and campaigns are brief. But mostly he moves into the typical argument in favor of the long campaign, such as the fact that a long campaign requires managerial and organizational skills. Maybe–but they aren’t necessarily the same kinds of skills needed for governing.
He also makes this claim:
The presidential primary season is essentially a prolonged intraparty dialogue. It re-creates the Madisonian idea of factions and interests competing against each other, applied not to the legislature or the executive but to the electoral process that produces both. The job of the parties is to create a kind of pre-legislative consensus through the competition and conversation of the various factions — ethnic, ideological, economic, geographic. The purpose of the endless presidential primary is to force the dialogue and, for all its haphazard meanderings and maddening trivialities, it does.
I think this sounds good in theory, but I am not so convinced that this is, in fact, the case in practice. What pre-legislative consensus did either of the last two Presidents create within their own parties, even as both entered office with unified government? I suppose one could argue that Bush came into office with tax cuts as an issue that he held in common with the Republican congress, but any GOP president would have done that–it certainly wasn’t the result of elegant Madisonian mechanisms that emerged during the primary process.
Indeed, one could argue that the separation of powers system that is in place makes it highly unlikely that the campaign would generate a workable legislative agenda that could be implemented smoothly. Yes, presidents enter office with a vaunted “honeymoon” period and frequently argue that they have a “mandate” but how much of that is generated by the fact they just won a very powerful office rather than being some sort of organic result of a two-year nomination process that infused his party?
And what if a president comes to office with divided government (i.e., with one or both chambers of the Congress in the hands of the opposition)? Where is the “pre-legislative consensus” then?
Sure, the party coalesces around one candidate each at the end of the day, but that is a necessity facilitated by the fact that there is just one candidacy per party. Republicans and Democrats would rally around their candidates if the campaign was six weeks, six months or six years in length.
The weirdest part of the column is the conclusion (which links back to the title of the column):
The final function of the endless campaign, and perhaps the most psychologically important, is to satisfy the American instinct for egalitarianism. We have turned the presidential campaign into a pleasingly degrading ordeal — pleasing, that is, to the electorate. The modern presidential campaign is meant to be physically exhausting and spiritually humbling almost to the point of humiliation. Candidates spend two years and more on bended knee begging for money, votes and handshakes in a diner.
Why do we inflict such cruel and unusual punishment? Because our winner is not just chief magistrate but king. True, the kingship is temporary, but its glories and perks are beyond compare — the pomp and pampering of a head of state, married to the real political power of controlling the most important state on the planet.
The bargain we offer the candidate is this: We will make you Lord, circling celestially above us on Air Force One, but because we are flinty Jeffersonian yeomen, we insist that you flatter us first with a very extended show of camaraderie and commonality with the Iowa farmer, the New Hampshire alderman and the South Carolina good ol’ boy. Aboriginal tribes have slightly different rituals for those who pretend to kingship, but the idea is the same: ordeal before dominion.
As a columnist whose job it is to chart every jot and tittle of these campaigns, every teapot tempest that history will remember for not one second, I curse election years. Now I have to curse the year before as well. But for all its bizarre meanderings, the endless campaign serves critical purposes.
The first two — testing the candidates’ managerial and consensus-building skills — are undeniably useful. But like most Americans, I find it is the third — the gratuitous humiliation of our would-be kings — that makes it all worthwhile.
Several thoughts come to mind. First, I suppose I should give Krauthammer the benefit of the doubt for trying to wax poetic here, but “king” and “Lord”? Yes, the President of the United States is a powerful office and there is much pomp and circumstance to be associated with the position, but I have never in my life, even metaphorically, thought of the President as an elected “King” and certainly have never applied the title “Lord” in the direction of the White House.
Beyond that, Krauthammer is buying into what I criticized just yesterday: the romantic notion that “a very extended show of camaraderie and commonality with the Iowa farmer, the New Hampshire alderman and the South Carolina good ol’ boy” is somehow a good measure of presidential mettle. Because, Goodness knows that the job is made up of such encounters. I have never grasped why two years of forced bonhomie makes one qualified for the presidency.
And this notion that the president should be viewed as a elected king is simply troubling–even if all that Krauthammer is talking about is the symbolic nature of the job and the fact that the president is separated on a daily basis from the “common people.”