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Time to retool the electoral system

THE clear conclusion to be drawn from the 1988 election, even before it is held, is that the American presidential electoral system no longer works. Campaigns have managed to become both longer and less informative. They are dominated by contrived photo opportunities aimed at getting the proper sound bite on the evening television news. Candidates are like boxers, with handlers. Or like football teams, with coaches. Or like actors, with directors. The purpose is to keep the public from learning what the candidate is really like while at the same time painting a false picture of his opponent. This is the opposite of the proper objective of a campaign.

A recurring complaint of voters in 1988 has been that they don't know very much about the candidates, and that the electoral process is keeping them from learning instead of helping them. It is no wonder that voter turnout continues to decline.

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The process clearly needs to be changed, but how? There is a strong presumption against tinkering with the United States Constitution. It has created what others have called a delicate balance that we disturb at our peril. But the way we elect a president has never worked the way the Founding Fathers intended it to. The original system broke down as early as 1800 and had to be replaced.

One of the ideas the constitutional convention seriously considered was election of the president by Congress. The idea is worth reviving, even (or especially) with the proviso that the president come from the ranks of senators and representatives.

Members of Congress would be choosing somebody they know intimately. They work closely with one another. They know who is strong and who is weak, who is venal and who is incorruptible, who is intellectually profound and who is shallow.

Vesting the election of the president in Congress would make it less likely that the White House and Capitol Hill would be controlled by different political parties. It would not end the possibility that the House and the Senate might be of different persuasions, or that midterm elections might change everything, but it would tend in that direction.

It would have the ancillary benefit of strengthening political parties. This would bring many advantages, not least an improvement in the functioning of Congress.

Finally, it would end the long trail of presidential primaries leading to meaningless nominating conventions. Above all, it would spare us the embarrassment of watching one candidate tour a flag factory while another rides around in a tank.

Several objections can legitimately be raised and deserve to be considered. First, by providing that the president must come from Congress, large numbers of able people - especially governors - are being excluded. The answer to this is to look at the record since World War II. Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford all came from Congress. Dwight Eisenhower was sui generis. The country would have been better off without either of the former governors, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

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It might also be objected that ambitious members of Congress would distort the process by pandering to colleagues, or that the process might produce as presidents the same kind of people who are now congressional leaders, say Speaker Jim Wright or Senate majority leader Robert Byrd. The prospect of either of these in the White House does not inspire enthusiasm, but what about House majority leader Thomas Foley, or Senate minority leader Bob Dole, or his predecessor, Howard Baker? In practice, we might well find that Congress would choose its own leaders according to one set of criteria and a president according to another.

A third objection might be that congressional election of a president would remove the process too far from the people. Congress certainly wouldn't act without regard to the people, but the point has substance.

A compromise would be to provide for nomination of the candidates by Congress, followed by a short campaign and a popular election. In this scheme of things Republican members of Congress would select the Republican presidential nominee, and Democratic members would select the Democratic nominee. Both parties would act on the same day, no earlier than Sept. 15 and no later than Oct. 1 in election years. Each party would be appropriated the same amount of funds for campaigning.

Change as fundamental as what is suggested here is not to be undertaken lightly, but neither is there any virtue in clinging to a system that clearly does not work.

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