Ending the Civil Cold War: Two Ideas for Moving Past a Partisan Democracy

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October 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm  •  Posted in Uncategorized by  •  6 Comments

Like many Americans I’ve been following the Presidential election cycle fairly closely.  Also, like many Americans, I find the tone and tenor of current politics nearly unbearable.  In my lifetime there’s been a noticeable shift away from doing what’s best for the country and toward doing what will help one of the two political parties achieve greater power.  The system is broken and I think more time should be spent fixing the system rather than fighting over who deserves tax cuts and who deserves government benefits.  I don’t like to complain about a situation without also offering a solution.  So, here’s my proposal to help move our country beyond partisanship and toward a more effective democracy.

I contend that the election system itself is driving the trend toward polarization and deeply partisan politics.  We have a winner take all Presidential system that leaves nearly half the country angry at the end of each term.  And, we have a party nomination system that often produces extreme candidates who “appeal to the base” of angry voters who tend to be further removed from the center (and, often, reality).  Everyone seems to know that candidates have to campaign by moving far to the right or left during the nomination process and then by veering to the center during the general election.  I believe that if we fix these broken pieces of the electoral puzzle we will find ourselves solving more of our problems and less time debating and fighting over issues.  So, how can we fix the electoral system?

First, we should eliminate re-elections at the Presidential level.  A President should be focused on doing what’s right for the country not on campaigning for re-election.  A new system should allow a President to govern and not allow the President to spend time on the campaign trail.

Second, we should find a way to encourage the election of highly capable individuals who will help lead us to compromise and unification rather than ideologues who will create further polarization.

Third, we need a system that doesn’t require hard stops every time the Oval Office changes hands.  The leadership transition should be seamless.  Along the same lines, we should have a system in place that guarantees a President won’t have to learn how to govern on the job.  The first 100 days of a Presidency shouldn’t involve a mad dash to demonstrate how different they will be and how their supporters will be rewarded.  Rather, the first 100 days should demonstrate, almost effortlessly, that a new administration will continue to lead America in a consistently competent manner assuring financial markets and world leaders, not to mention ordinary citizens, that they need not be concerned about surprise overnight changes in policy.

So, how do we address these problem?  Here’s my plan in 2 relatively simple steps.

1. Instead of electing or re-electing a President every 4 years, let’s elect a Vice President.  This person will serve 4 years as VP and then 4 years as President.  The individual would be guaranteed an 8-year term to cement a legacy of doing what’s best for the country without fear of retribution in an upcoming election.  At the end of 8 years, they would no longer be eligible to hold public office.  This would elevate the position of Vice President (currently a fairly limited role) and guarantee hands-on training for anyone who would become President.  Let’s say that instead of choosing Obama or Romney, we simply agree that Romney will become the new VP.  Obama will continue as President for the next 4 years and Romney will become President in 2016.  Instead of a whole new cycle beginning in 2014 to elect a new President, everyone will know that Romney will be President and the electorate will begin to choose who will become Vice President in 2016 and ultimately President in 2020.  This would end Presidential re-election campaigns and allow the sitting President to focus exclusively on the business of running the country and making meaningful progress on tough issues. This system would also ensure a far more smooth transition each 4 years.  Rather than knowing who will be President 3 months in advance we’ll know 4 years in advance.

The VP role would become far more important.  Perhaps the office of the VP would be primarily tasked with setting the agenda – submitting budget and policy proposals and negotiating with congress. This would free the office of the President to focus on executive management of the country, both internationally and domestically. The President would retain veto power but would no longer be required to spend huge chunks of time on policy debate. Instead the focus would be on making decisions and reacting to challenges and crises.  Imagine if Obama was able to stay focused on managing his Cabinet officials, containing political unrest in the Middle East, negotiating trade policy with China and fighting the housing and jobs crisis instead of traveling to swing states, raising money and giving stump speeches or preparing for debates.   I suspect his job approval ratings would skyrocket.  There’s a good model for this at most large corporations where you typically see a CEO and a strong Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the helm with the COO poised to assume CEO responsibilities when the time comes.

2. We need to dramatically change the nomination system.  Rather than selecting 1 nominee for each party, the primary process should produce up to 3 nominees from each party (presumably 3 Republicans, 3 Democrats and a handful of independents, perhaps a libertarian, a green party candidate, etc – a minimum number of signatures on a petition or primary votes would be needed to get on the ballot).  The general election would then require a 2-step process. Step 1 would be a “Super Primary” in which all voters are eligible to decide on which 2 candidates should face one another in a run-off. Voters would be permitted to select 2 candidates instead of just one. The top 2 vote getters would then face-off before Step 2, a final vote where a winner would be selected in the traditional electoral college approach.

The benefit of this approach would be that extreme candidates on either end of the political spectrum would have a more difficult path to winning the nomination and more moderate candidates would likely receive votes as many people’s “runner up” choice. Would Rick Santorum be likely to make it to the run-off?  How about Sarah Palin?  Would George W. Bush or Barack Obama have been elected?  Would Dick Cheney have been Vice President?  My guess is no to all five.  Candidates would no longer need to pander to the extreme elements within their party because moderate positions would become more attractive to voters in the Super Primary.  In addition, VPs would know that they’ll be required to cooperate with the President.  This would help unify the country and lead to more policy compromise.

How would this have played out assuming the system was in place beginning in 2000?  I think Al Gore would have served as President with John McCain as his VP.  John McCain then would have taken office in 2004 perhaps with VP Wesley Clark.  Wesley Clark takes the helm in 2008 with VP Hillary Clinton and currently we’d have President Hillary Clinton and about to elect VP Mitt Romney.  Obviously this is complete speculation.  Who knows what would really happen.  But, we would be *highly* unlikely to see the likes of Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney in line for the Presidency.  We would also see more moderates entering the fray and 3rd party candidates getting a  more level playing field.  All of that, in my opinion, would be a terrific step forward for America.

These ideas may not be the ideal solution – I’m no political scientist – but something will have to give and I’d rather not see us continue the Civil Cold War that we have today…or worse, see it escalate into civil unrest and violence.  I guarantee that no one with power to wield in the GOP or the DNC will embrace these ideas.  They have too much to lose if the status quo goes away.  Change will have to come from a groundswell of grassroots support.  As citizens we have that power.  So, if you like these ideas, please share, retweet, mark as favorite, etc.  If you don’t like these ideas, please propose your own thoughts and share them or comment below and suggest changes that would lead to improvement.

I feel like America has become the equivalent of a “job-hopper”, someone who is always looking for a new gig (or policy portfolio) and never focusing on the job they’re being paid to do.

Let’s end the Civil Cold War. Let’s move past extreme partisanship. Let’s stop job-hopping.  Let’s get back to work.

6 Comments

  1. Bob / October 5, 2012 at 8:11 am / Reply

    Did you watch the debate? There was a guy right there who is a self made man, a CEO who has the education, life experience and mind to be an effective president.

    While I agree that the parties seem to control the system and things seem to be going in only 2 directions at the same time (maybe your system could work); there seems to be a clear better choice between the 2 options now. Perhaps the best choice in 30 years.

    • Justin / October 5, 2012 at 9:48 am / Reply

      Bob – I assume you’re endorsing Romney. I ask because you say “self made man” which isn’t true as he was born into extraordinary wealth and political influence. I agree that Romney is a very capable CEO and in my proposed election system he would be a terrific VP but I think he would benefit tremendously from 4 years in the executive branch prior to taking responsibility for foreign affairs which is, in my opinion, a weak spot. Obama would have surely benefited from 4 years as VP as well. In the current system, the VP position is nearly a throw-away which is a wasted opportunity to groom truly outstanding leaders. By the way, yes, I did watch part of the debate. Bedtime routines for my 3 kids interrupted quite a bit so I plan to go back and watch on YouTube. Romney was impressive in form, less so in substance; but, clearly he outperformed the President and has some momentum. We’ll see how it plays out.

  2. Darren / October 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm / Reply

    Hi Justin,
    I too share your frustration with the current state of politics. Pandering to the extremes rather than doing what is best for the country is a longstanding problem begging for a solution. I am not a political scientist either and won’t pretend like I would be able to devise a better system, although many of your propositions do sound appealing. Like with many problems, I think the solution lies in education. I just don’t see any better way to shrink the ideological extremes and focus people on having real conversations about real issues. Until we focus more on education we will probably remain stuck wondering if women or homosexuals should have any rights, rather than on issues such as clean energy or nuclear proliferation.

    • Justin / October 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm / Reply

      Darren – thanks for sharing your perspective!

  3. Mark / October 15, 2012 at 4:40 pm / Reply

    Darren nailed it, with the commentary on education. Just about any system might work fine with intelligent, informed voters. Just about any system can fail if the voters can’t see past the distractions. I actually feel like we have two of the most moderate candidates in history this year(in terms of the final two candidates, that is), but you wouldn’t know it from listening to people on either side.

    I’m sure the system you suggest could work, but I wonder how easy it would be to partition powers between P/VP and keep things moving. Maybe it would be easy, since the VP has a vested interest in keeping the car on the road, in contrast to the current system, where the party out of power seems bent on impeding progress to make the ruling party look bad.

    Assuming you could implement your President/VP system, what would you do with congress? It’s just as broken, in my opinion. Proportional representation? Seems to me that would please voters who might, for example, want a fiscally conservative government, but not give a rip about where a candidate goes to church (or doesn’t).

    • Justin / October 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm / Reply

      Mark, I agree, congress is broken too…perhaps more so. I would like to see a similar approach that eliminates the current focus on re-election. For the senate perhaps a “Junior” Senator is elected every 4 years and serves a fixed 8-year term, just like my VP/Pres system above so they benefit from the “Senior” Senator’s experience. No option for re-election to the Senate. House of Reps is a bit trickier. Have to give that some more thought. But, again, I like the idea of strict term limits to avoid the distraction of re-election and to reduce the influence of lobbying $$$.

      Yes, the VP and Pres would both have incentive to cooperate; or, perhaps at least they would have no obvious reason to fight. But, if they don’t get along at all, then the Pres can run the show and the VP can focus on preparing for his/her turn at bat.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Best, Justin

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