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1860, 1932, 2008

by John Pierre Ameer

It has become too easy to ridicule the current administration. Their syntactical and conceptual errors are so blatantly obvious, that pointing them out is like shooting fish in a barrel. The disastrous consequences of their uninformed and immature domestic and foreign policies are obvious as well. Unfortunately, and tragically, these bumbling and ill-conceived policies have resulted in an enormously long list of casualties, both at home and abroad, perhaps an irredeemable loss of prestige for this country abroad, and economic policies that are eroding the stability and confidence of Americans. Rehearsing these disastrous events, however, is of little use toward the essential goal of advocating and planning actions to restore sanity and balance to American government. It is sufficient, I believe, as a starting point for discussing restoration, to note the prescience and subsequent vindication of Republican analyst Kevin Phillips observation during the 2000 presidential campaign that, 'George W. Bush is eminently unqualified to be President of the United States.'

As accurate was Phillips assessment, we must extend our understanding of the current situation to understand that George W. Bush is not an anomaly, but the reduction ad absurdum of an ill-advised plan of shared government created by the Founders. We can identify with their felt need to erect a governmental structure that had adequate checks and balances, a laudable caution. In fact, through most of the years of our Republic, the concept of a strong executive to balance the legislative branch has been variously realized, ranging from ineffective executives to a few genuinely outstanding ones. This list, however, did not include until the inauguration of President Bush, an individual so destructive of the health of our democratic system. This perversion of the Founders' principle of balance has proved to be toxic as well to conditions in several countries that have come into contact with American policies, notably and tragically, of course, in Iraq.

The Founders rejected the modern parliamentary arrangement, opting instead for the older Tudor model of a strong executive counter balancing a strong legislature. With some concern about the possibility in the future of misuse by an individual, they nevertheless set the stage fore a transition, when conditions were right, to have a chief executive who tried to govern as, in effect, a constitutional monarch.

With the coronation of Bush and Cheney in 2000 by an unthinking and politically short-sighted Supreme Court majority, the possibility of a semi-autonomous executive was realized. President Bush is functioning in foreign and domestic policies virtually as an unchecked autocrat, as we see in daily reports from Iraq, the target of our illegal and immoral invasion and occupation. Yet, six years after the start of this disastrous adventure that has destroyed the lives and futures of millions of Iraqi men, women and children, and has created a lengthening list of American dead and injured, a significant plurality of our people and their representatives in Congress cannot bring this misadventure to a close. Well over half the sitting members of Congress and a majority of American voters, approaching 70%, are opposed to continuing the war and want our military personnel brought home. Yet, rather than planning for disengagement, the Bush people are seriously considering expanding the conflict into neighboring Iran. This insanity should have died aborning, yet, with support from acolytes in the press, from the armchair warriors in the neoconservative cabal, and from members of Congress who see their mandate as lock-step adherence to the Republican executive, our disastrous Middle Eastern is on the verge of expanding.

The system of checks articulated in our Constitution, designed to prevent just such reckless adventurism, is not functioning. Events at home and abroad-the Iraq fiasco, inept response, or lack of response actually, to the Katrina disaster, failed economic and tax policies, denial in the face of global warming, are just the most egregious examples-have caused an aura of frightening impotence to engulf the constitutional optimist that inaugurated our balanced system of government. Such a profound breakdown demands systemic changes to our constitutional structure in order to prevent repetitions of this imbalance. Unfortunately, the prescribed means for changing the structure, by constitutional amendment, have revealed themselves to be inadequate to the task, and, consequently, unresponsive to the demand. The fears of the Founders persuaded them to institute an amendment process that allows for change, but only by way of a very difficult route. This cumbersome process has indeed prevented, for the most part, ill-conceived and unnecessary changes, but it has also delayed and discouraged the constructive use of the amendment process to respond to systemic failures such as our presidential selection process. As a consequence, checks on the power of the executive rest more reliably on the choice of president than on constitutional restraints. As a result, the American body politic must look to this selection as the way to restore the country's confidence in its political institutions, to regain the confidence of the world community, and to bring back reliability and balance in our body politic.

Our task as citizens concerned not just about electoral victory but also about the future of our Republic is to seek out and elect a chief executive and vice president who are committed to this restoration. I do not believe it an exaggeration to equate the upcoming election with those of 1860 and 1932 in terms of the health and endurance of our democracy. In those elections, the country was remarkably and thankfully well served by the accession of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. We are now in desperate need of an individual with equivalent capacities of intelligence, maturity, balance, wisdom, experience, courage and compassion. At the moment, however, both the process of selection and the actual candidates vying for the office, from both parties, are not encouraging.

In the first place, the method whereby Americans select candidates to represent the parties in the race for president resembles a political farce. In the Spring of 2007, with the election still 20 months away, the aspirants in both parties became fully engaged in campaigns. Thus began a seemingly endless round of debates, campaign stops, interviews, news conferences and the like, so that voters cannot be faulted for becoming unresponsive and unaware of the critical and historical stakes in this election. It is likely that such enervation will only increase, month by month, prompting many voters to withdraw their attention and will culminate in a lower turnout on election day that would otherwise be expected.

Second, the primary system itself, no matter its length, is skewed to respond to the decisions of a tiny minority of voters in three relatively unimportant states-Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The selection process begins in Iowa with a caucus method that resembles a Shaker line dance. There is not even an actual vote as such, but a shuffling about a room by the participants to indicate their preference. Shockingly, contenders for the office of president are either eliminated or elevated by this faux primary. Vast sums of money are spent in each cycle courting the votes of Iowans, while voters in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Massachusetts and the other larger states are denied the full range of choice available to Iowans. How effective this process tends to be was noted in post-caucus research that revealed that John Kerry won in Iowa because a majority of Democratic voters judged him to be the most 'electable.'

Much of this political chaos derives from the manner in which the Senate is constituted, with equal representation among all the states. This has resulted, in fact, in severely unequal consequences. The bottom 25 states in population have 50 members in the Senate, while the top four states, with a combined population that exceeds that of the bottom 25, have 8 members. Inevitably, the selection process for president became, over time, yet another device whereby the smaller states can have an impact inordinate to their size relative to the larger states, and, therefore, to the nation at large.

But, to use the well-worn cliché, this is the hand we have been dealt. Absent a more manageable amendment process, the only way we can overcome these imbalances is to ensure that the candidate who emerges is the one who best represents our hopes and who best exemplifies those characteristics that history has shown to be essential to successful executives, especially in times of crisis. Only in the elections of 1860 and 1932 have these requirements been as critically important as they are in the upcoming election. I do not see this person in the current field Some of the candidates are certainly able at their current positions, and some are wholly unqualified, but none fully embodies the characteristics that the situation demands. Some are palatable only in comparison to the current incumbent.

Third, every candidate seems unable to resist playing to the illusion that he or she will, in effect, but a constitutional monarch. This discouraging development, implicit in the constitutional structure, but only realized in the current context, has been reinforced over the past 75 years by the various crises in our history-World Wars I and ii, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the current fear and, indeed, hysteria over terrorist gangs. Giving in to this temptation, presidential aspirants have taken to utter such expressions as, 'On the day after my inauguration, I will...'By the end of my first term, I will...,' an so on. Fears generated by these crises as well as n unfortunate propensity among voters to pay only passing attention to issues and to the constitutional arrangements for the relationship among the government's parts, have encouraged an assumption of the validity of this semi-autonomous executive. The actions of the Bush administration as well as the ideology of Vice President Cheney and his cabal, have fueled this distorted perception of these arrangements.

As we have learned from the Bush years, only in foreign and military policy is this power fully realized. Similar power in domestic matters can occur, but only in partnership with a compliant legislature. This collusion allows a president's agenda to become enacted, as happened in 2001, even though the incumbent came to office with the tiniest of mandates. Nevertheless this unwarranted assumption about presidential power in all areas is pervasive. We note it, for example, in the credit or blame that presidents receive for economic upturns or downturns.

Since the amendment process does not lend itself to timely changes in this dysfunctionality, certainly not in time for the 2008 election, and even for the 2012 cycle, we must look elsewhere. The actual choice of president as we proceed into the ever more dangerous uncertainties of the 21st century, will define our response to these crises. It is imperative that we have a candidate who will defiantly confront this dysfunctionality and compaign not as a presumptive constitutional monarch, but as the leader of a team and the primary advocate of a specific program. This necessitates his designating at the start of the campaign not only a preference for vice president but also his choices for the several cabinet positions, the senior military people and the key administrative personnel. Each of these designees will then blanket the country campaigning in the name of the candidate and on behalf of the program.

The program, or platform, arrived at through a consultative process, preferably in a public forum, should delineate the party's positions, as understood by the candidate and his cohort. Planks should be written for each of the important issues facing the nation, not simply as devices for campaigning, but as genuine statements of intent. Essential in the construction of such a platform is an assembly of responsible, reflective, and experienced Americans from the various areas of our national endeavors, to formulate the planks. Happily for America, the talent for just such a group is vast and includes many who are willing to join such an effort at this critical time in our history.

Unlike the usual party planks that are as easily forgotten as written, these should be constantly emphasized by the campaigners: 'Elect us and this is what we are committed to achieving.' It is important as well for the campaigners to make public the various, and even conflicting viewpoints that arose during the sessions. That would demonstrate the openness in which the new administration would govern. The public would be wise to use these planks as benchmarks with which to quiz candidates for congressional offices as to their adherence to or refection of each plank. This would have the added benefit to the system of reminding the voters that successful implementation is a matter of collaboration. Success will come, not as the current process suggests and the candidates reinforce, from diktats emanating from the Oval Office.

In this election, as in the earlier elections I have singled out, candidates with the necessary and demanding qualifications are few. I believe that of the persons currently available for the presidency, the one who most closely meets the criteria is Al Gore. His experience, intelligence, wisdom, maturity, courage, and compassion are unarguably evident. In addition, he combines a genuine love of country with a commitment to a successful future for our planet. He demonstrate a careful and admirable balance, demonstrated dramatically in his understanding of productive interrelationships among countries, as opposed to the sterile and counterproductive unilateralism characteristic of this administration. At the same time, Mr. Gore, unlike our incumbent and most of the contenders to succeed him, understands that 'commander in chief' is only one of the demands of the job, and not even the most important one. He is aware, as were the best of the predecessors in the presidency, that America's military might must be used judiciously and not squandered in futile unilateral adventures. Furthermore, he is adamant that the multilateral necessities of these times preclude the effectiveness of a unilateral military strategy, if, indeed, there was any time when that was not true.

Anyone reviewing Al Gore's life will find ample evidence that he is thoughtful and measured rather than bombastic and chauvinistic, that he approaches human relations and the well-being of all the people with empathy rather than with favoritism and selectivity, and that his patriotism is informed as opposed to the pseudo-religious exceptionalism that purports to emphasize country but justifies criminality. The quiet reflection that he felt necessary to pursue on his return from the Vietnam War, gives us insight into his approach to matters of deep import. And, of course, in the matter of the environmental crisis that is intensifying by the day, he has been a prophet. Yes, Mr. Gore could have run a more vigorous campaign in 2000, but he was hamstrung by a predecessor whose behavior energized the opposition, and by a mainstream press that decided, for reasons that remain incomprehensible, to give the incompetent George W. Bush a bye, while trashing the accomplished and eminently more qualified Al Gore.

This is neither a call for a messiah nor a hope for a knight charging to the rescue on a white steed. It actually is a plea to avoid that construct. I call instead for a joint effort, seriously constructed, with the implementers carefully selected, led by someone with the characteristics necessary to orchestrate such a demanding effort, and with the ability to rally the general public to this cause. We have had the good fortune to select such men in the past; we need to be fortunate once again. I am sure that Mr. Gore must be disinclined to re-enter the muck and mire that characterize the modern presidential selection process, but, should he choose to do so, I believe he would attract a remarkably large number of voters, from across the political spectrum, who are angrily dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and who deeply and passionately love this country, but who are not yet energized to join in a restoration of the country's past and possible greatness.

I hope that Al Gore considers entering the race, under the conditions and with the support spelled out above, and I hope that sufficient numbers of Americans will participate in the campaign to insure his election, and those of others who share his program and platform, to ensure his election and that of a supportive majority in Congress. Nothing less than our future as a democracy depends on it.

Dr. Ameer is Assistant Professor of Education and School Reform Specialist at the Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark University. He may be reached at jameer@clarku.edu

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