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Looking ahead at the US presidency

The political weather forecast for Washington after the 1980 presidential election is stormy: Whoever wins the White House, it will take nothing short of a landslide to dislodge Democratic control of Congress, which the party has held for 26 years.

To capture Congress the GOP must oust nine senators and 59 representatives, an overturn that would indicate they (a) had found an extraordinarily charismatic leader, or (b) had taken advantage of a 1932-style collapse by the party in power.

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Washington has seen split government for 14 of the last 26 years. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower faced Democratic control of Congress for six of his eight years; Presidents Nixon and Ford together faced Democratic majorities in Congress for eight years.

Split government puts strain on the system of separation of powers, although some presidents, generally in quiet times, have operated successfully with hostile legislatures.

In the Democratic primary, Mr. Carter knows the strength of incumbency: In the 20th century no president who has actively sought renomination has been denied it.

The increasingly fierce Carter-Kennedy tussle is likened to what happened to Republicans in 1912. The dynamic Theodore Roosevelt challenged colorless incumbent William Howard Taft in a divisive struggle that opened the way for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to capture the White House. (Roosevelt bolted the GOP and ran as a "progressive.")

The meaning of these various factors is that even after a year-long presidential contest the chances of getting a president in the White House with a clear-cut mandate, and a majority of his own party in either or both Houses of Congress, remains uncertain.

Voter alienation with the political process has shown itself in a steadily declining participation. Here is the downward drift: In 1964, 61.9 percent of those eligible voted; in 1968, it was 60.9 percent; in 1972, 55.5 percent; in 1976, 54.4 percent.

For midterm elections, the turnout is even smaller -- only 34 percent in 1978 . Ninety million who were eligible did not vote. In fact, the US ranks lowest among Democratic nations in actual voter participation.

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The coming Canadian election, by contrast, is expected to bring out around 75 percent of voters. In that nation's parliamentary form of government, the election campaign lasts only two months.

There is every sign that the incoming US president, Republican or Democrat, will need all the political strength the American presidenttial election system gives him for his task. By 1981 it is hoped the problem of the 50 American hostages will be over and done. But the confrontation with the Soviet Union is apt to continue. Bread-and-butter issues are almost certain to be as severe, or more so, than at present: Even higher inflation and gas lines are possible.

Whether the forthcoming president will have close cooperation with the new Congress is one of the big unknowns of the campaign. Such intervals of coordination between White House and Congress are rare under the system of separation of powers. Woodrow Wilson had such an interval in the first two years of his administration; Franklin Roosevelt had such an interval in his first term under the New Deal; and Lyndon Johnson had a two-year interval as he began the New Society.

New presidents are uncertain what kind of a mandate they will get under an election. Richard Nixon, for example, faced a Democratic Congress each time he was elected. But voter analyses indicate an alienation from government leaders; some call it a crisis of confidence.

The Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan has asked a series of questions in each presidential election year to appraise the degree of public trust and confidence in Washington government. It found such confidence sinking. Its so-called alienation index was 31 percent in 1972. It jumped to 61 percent in 1976. A recent Harris poll showed popular confidence in Congress at an all-time low.


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