Watching Lincoln encouraged me to familiarize myself with 19th Century government and, most importantly, the political system of the Confederacy. The Old South teaches us a lot about what not to do (hint: slavery), but the real lessons from the Civil War are not just Lincoln’s political acumen, but the innovative government of Jefferson Davis.
The long-term ability for the President to effect change is checked by two opposing forces: the inability to truly see lasting change in the blink of four years against the importance of considering reelection from day one.
The Confederacy dealt with this by restricting its president to one, six-year term. This is a tremendously inventive and powerful idea. It acted as a check on presidential authority by precluding reelection, but also gives great political capital by removing the need to consider actions from a purely partisan standpoint.
I am not concerned by the financial burden of reelection for an economy as large as ours as much as the political burden it places on a president to ignore sweeping reform in preference to piecemeal actions that do not conglomerate into a coherent narrative.
The Confederate model, by itself, is not desirable. A grand President is, by definition, a rare phenomenon. It would be undesirable to turn away such an icon for unfairly harsh electoral rules that seem to overrule the will of the people. After all, if a striking majority of people want the incumbent, is the Constitution not getting in the way of popular will?
Bill Clinton himself told Piers Morgan that the two-term limit seems unduly austere in today’s world, noting that he would have probably been ready to run again for a third time. But in understanding the perplexities of term limits as they apply to the President, it is important to understand the more important underlying message.
We don’t want a President to define a generation. In the United States we are deeply suspicious of political dynasties and central authority. We occasionally drink into conspiracy theories that our elections are not democratic after all, succumbing to mad dreams that there is a big Man behind it all, running our elections, as Chomsky would say, manufacturing our consent.
Term limits serve a check on this grander, greater-than-human belief that we are but pawns on the Chessboard of kings. But there is very much a way to reconcile this suspicion with a greater reform. Adopt, partially, a Confederate model – a President may win the Electoral College only once.
However, after five-years of incumbency, give Senate the authority to proffer an official Censure Vote on the President. If this vote of no confidence passes by simple majority, the House of Representatives would be granted authority to announce an Electoral College precisely one year later, narrowing the campaign process to a little under a year’s time.
If Senate fails to present an official Censure on the President or it is ultimately rejected by the House, the President is granted authority to serve for six more years, at which point a general election would be called regardless.
This accomplishes several objectives. It decreases the political cost of the first five years of Presidency and removes the need to campaign cross-country allowing the President to focus on the issues that matter. It increases the maximum tenure of a President from eight to twelve years, understanding that today’s politicians serve well into old-age.
Finally, it would increase the importance we as a Nation place on midterm elections. It would increase the voter turnout on Congressional campaigns and would increase voter awareness of our Legislative branch in the large. Indeed, this acts as an important check on the President by forcing awareness of midterm elections in the two years after election, but it also allows for grand action where it is important.
Ultimately, we need to ensure that general elections are run by Federal authorities, with uniform security across all states. Our decentralized voting system for a highly centralized office lies in the dreams of yore when the President was far weaker than he is today.
Importantly, this kind of reform would have very predictable political consequences if implemented for the next election. Indeed such a system would benefit our President today as the Senate is not likely to Censure Obama. However, if we promise to implement such a system in ten to fifteen years, it would require deep arrogance for any politician to think his party will either benefit from or be victim to this reform.
The way we elect our president is in dire need of reform. This evolution can achieve bipartisan support while, at the same time, move towards engendering a healthier relationship between the President and his legislators, to heal the wounded relationship Washington has with its people.