Ask candidates about presidency


WE SHOULD ASK OUR presidential candidates tough questions this fall. But they almost assuredly will not face tough questions about their understanding of the presidential office, its role in our political system and, most importantly, its limits.

Why? Because the American people and the media, as well as the candidates, are increasingly prone to fetishism of the presidency.

What is fetishism of the presidency? It is centering discussion of every problem or policy issue on the presidency. It is a tendency that, unrealistically, sees the presidency as able to solve every dilemma confronting America.

Our candidates in the primaries engaged in this fetishism, offering the presidency as the great hope of the American people. The people and media also traded in this same fetishism by always asking the candidates, "How would you fix this problem when you become president?" Or, "How would you, as president, solve this or that crisis?"

There are three important drawbacks to fetishizing the presidency.

First, although our constitutional system of separation of powers often frustrates a dominant presidential will, our distorted view of the presidency rules the day.

Given great expectations and little chance for accomplishment, presidents are almost doomed to fail. Although bold and dominating presidential leadership has only occurred in rare, even extraordinary, cases, we seem to believe that it can and should be commonplace, regardless of the situation or the partisan composition of Congress. And when things are not taken care of promptly and with little bickering -- as we have been promised -- we sour on our process, tend to distrust government and rate our presidents as failures.

The second problem is that bold, dominating presidential leadership, even if possible, occasionally can have negative consequences.

The framers of the Constitution set up the legislature -- not to mention the courts -- and invested it with numerous powers because they feared the damage that one person -- the president -- for reasons of personal interest, moral defect, or poor judgment, might wreak on the nation.

They favored, during normal times, deliberative process over unilateral decision-making. But in our impatience with democratic processes, we often look to the presidency to quickly and decisively solve our problems, with occasionally mixed policy results.

Finally, fetishizing the presidency accentuates our problems of political non-participation.

When we look to the presidency to solve all of our problems, we lose sight of our role as citizens in a constitutionally demanding process. Ceding our citizenly obligations to the presidency, we are encouraged to become civic couch potatoes with little taste or understanding for the conflict, deliberation, delay and, yes, compromise, which are essential components of a legislative process in a pluralist democracy.

Rather than being educated on the values of deliberation and debate and the necessity of coalitions and compromise, we are taught to demand easy solutions, to view conflict and disagreement as "partisanship," special interest politics, or a lack of public spirit. We are taught to view Congress as corrupt and stagnant and to focus our energies on a distant removed leader rather than our far more immediate and accessible representatives. Despite presidential affirmations to the contrary, it would seem this is a rather thin form of democratic participation.

Can anything be done to arrest this tendency to fetishize the presidency?

One obvious, modest suggestion: penetrating and insightful questioning of the presidential candidates by the national media.

Vice President Gore and Gov. George W. Bush (and Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader, if they be considered viable candidates) should be asked broad questions regarding the role they think the presidency should play in our political system.

Specifically, they should be asked what role they envision for Congress in the legislative process, a process that we somehow think today is the province of presidents more than Congress.

Candidates might also be asked what role they see for the presidency in foreign and military affairs and whether they would accord Congress any role therein. Perhaps most importantly, candidates should be challenged when they offer vague proposals about bold leadership and big plans, or when they invest the presidency with unachievable or excessive expectations.

A small step in the right direction is probably all that we can expect now. But we should not discount the influence that one or more hard-hitting questions may have on our political debate.

Starting a national conversation on the role and scope of the presidency, and its implications for political participation, governance and democracy, would certainly be a welcome development.

Michael J. Korzi is an assistant professor of political science at Towson University.

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