The Coalition Presidency

<STD: Serious Topic Disclaimer>
In the interest of offering content both didactic and accessible, the following Serious Topic will not include proper source support. This means you shouldn’t believe any of it. If you find the discussion compelling, however, I encourage you to pursue a more demonstrable truth.

Not long ago, I attended a lecture from Dr. David Orentlicher, who has recently published a book that states the case for what he dubs a “coalition presidency”—a bipartisan sharing of the chief executive office.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to present an energetic dissent to his position. So I feel it’s appropriate to start by saying that I found him to be very brilliant (I’ll just mention that he is a alumnus of both Harvard Law and Harvard Med, and is a former state legislator), a very indulgent speaker, and an all-around nice guy. It’s even more appropriate to admit that I haven’t read the book (well, it hasn’t been published for long). Dr. Orentlicher has probably heard my objections already, and maybe even counter-pointed them so effectively that I wouldn’t dare write this post after having read his full argument. I really can’t emphasize enough that I don’t speak for Dr. Orentlicher here, even though I purport to summarize and then break down his argument. That said, here I go!

The coalition presidency proposal is largely founded on two premises. First, Orentlicher suggests that our political scene has become so partisan and contentious that a fundamental structural change is necessary to get things moving again. Second, he argues that the scope of presidential power has expanded considerably, leaving us with an “imperial presidency”—a chief executive wielding power that greatly surpasses what the founders intended to allocate to that office.

I agree with the second point. It’s hard to argue that presidential power hasn’t expanded considerably since our nation’s inception. The proliferation of executive orders, the expansion of the bureaucracy (in size, scope, and reach), the president’s augmented war powers, and his increasingly important role as the leader of his political party are only a few examples of growing executive power. Whether increased executive power is a good thing, a bad thing, or something in between is an entirely different debate, but it does create an interesting political dynamic.

When the president is elected every four years, about half of the country is really upset (yes, let’s hear the threats of emigration!). When Congress switches hands, the reaction isn’t nearly so dramatic. There could be a lot of reasons for this. Congress comprises a certain amount of grey—or purple, as it were—because of its diverse membership. A congress of voices and ideas, even if one political party predominates, naturally create some compromise. Maybe that makes an adverse congressional majority more palatable to some. Conversely, a president is 100% Democrat or Republican.

The source of the public’s ire could be the understanding that the executive power is powerful enough to create the most unfavorable change for the opposition. Then again, it could just be a somewhat irrational populace reacting most strongly to the highest-profile election.

Regardless of the reason, these swings from Republican to Democratic executive control pose a lot of problems for me. First, it seems schizophrenic and inefficient to oscillate between two largely opposed conceptions of progress. Second, we seem to be approaching actual legitimacy problems. That sounds alarmist, and maybe it is, but political dissent has elevated to levels that those older and wiser than me suggest are unprecedented. Consolidating these issues into the most powerful office seems like bad policy.

This bring us to the second premise: That we’re logjammed to the point of needing some artificially-generated help. This is where Dr. Ortenlicher’s proposal gets really interesting to me, although I disagree with the premise fundamentally.

To me, our political hangups might be a product of our times rather than our system. Nobody seems to discuss this possibility! Very few serious social issues have confronted this country over the past 50 years or so. During the 1960s—a period now known for social discourse and a political paradigm shift thanks to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other important historical events—we had a lot of dissent. Today, the Supreme Court is addressing gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, a whole slew of issues associated with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (torture, the rights of accused POWs, etc.). It’s a new 1960s—except this time the counterculture is the hyperconservative Tea Party (oddly enough).

It’s a misconception that Democrats and Republicans disagree for the sake of disagreeing (although they do endure a lot of pressure to conform to their parties’ norms—and much of it comes from the president). Rather, we self-assign a party definition based on our belief structures, and they naturally oppose those of the folks across the aisle. A lot of the dissent is genuinely ideological. I think a lot of Democrats feel that they’re on the edge of another watershed moment of social change, and they don’t want to compromise their position of power. I also think a lot of Republicans feel that they’re holding on to their political philosophy for dear life in a world that has increasingly chilled on them—leaving them little incentive to compromise.

It’s not that nobody wants to get anything done, it’s that everybody wants to do something they can agree with, and neither side can stomach any compromise. Sometimes the debate just can’t reconcile compromise.

So while I disagree with the all-too-cliché suggestion that Congress just can’t get anything done because nobody in there wants to work across the aisle, I do think that we’re at a kind of political bottleneck. Note that the person with the force to push anything through that bottleneck is the president… and this can create even more problems when one side knows it’s got the executive behind it and the other has to make an enemy out of them both.

Hence the coalition presidency proposal, which makes some sense even if you don’t embrace the common wisdom about Congress’s compromising habits (like I don’t). Dr. Orentlicher very compellingly presents a game theory argument (all zero of my loyal readers know I’m a sucker for that stuff) predicated on dividing the office to force compromise.

He proposes that both the most popular presidential candidate and the runner up occupy the office as equals, with mutual action required to make any effective executive action. Each would naturally specialize in certain areas, he suggests, but each would also have to have the other sign off on everything (laws, executive orders, etc.) to get anything done. In other words, for either to make any progress, both would have to be on board. It’s a really interesting idea, but I don’t think it would work. Here’s why:

1) Constitutionality: Obviously, right now this system is in direct opposition to the Constitution’s express provisions defining the presidency. To even consider Dr. Orentlicher’s proposal within the realm of possibility, we need to address the odds of the several states getting together and amending the Constitution. Well, we’ve done it 17 times since the Bill of Rights, so that’s not such a long shot, right? Except that here we don’t mean amend as in “to append a small change or new rule.” No, here we mean amend as in “to totally overhaul our entire governmental structure.” It’s inconceivable that this would ever be embraced, especially because (as I’ll discuss below), it seems like this approach would seriously wound the political majority.

Ok, so, fine, it’ll never happen. That said, it’s still a cool idea, and there are lots of really good ideas that will never see their due implementation in this country, so it’s worth more discussion.

2) Electoral procedure: The way we actually conduct elections has a significant effect on their outcome. I asked Dr. Orentlicher whether he would amend our approach, and he agreed that an instant runoff approach would probably be ideal.

Our current system uses a simple first-past-the-post approach that awards everyone a single vote. But a lot of times this doesn’t produce results reflecting the majority opinion. The classic example in the American context is the evil third-party candidate who attracts some fringe voters from a mainstream candidate. If a Green Party candidate gets 5% of the vote, a Democratic candidate gets 46% of the vote, and a Republican candidate gets 48% of the vote, the Republican wins. But those Green Party voters would have preferred the Democrat, in all likelihood. Instant runoff just mitigates this issue, which would be useful in elections where the winner and runner-up are important.

Also of note is that this system would almost certainly unfocus the attention on general elections and redirect it to primaries. Primary elections have been really problematic recently, especially for Republicans, because more extreme factions within political parties are wielding more and more power. Tea Party candidates won a lot of primaries, but couldn’t stand up to the much saner—er, more reasonable—Democrats during the general election.

If we’re guaranteed the two highest-scoring candidates win, though, we’re basically resolved to giving the spots to the Democrat and the Republican. The only question is who those two will be. So the primary elections designed to answer exactly that question are colossally important.

Administering all of these changes and beginning to think differently about how we elect our presidents just adds to the headache of making a coalition presidency real.

3) Minority rule: This is my biggest concern. The idea of “one person, one vote” is at the core of our system, and I think that majority rule is inherent in that. But a coalition presidency would represent a serious blow to majority rule, because the runner-up candidate (even if he receives only, say, 5% of the vote) would inherit 50% of the power under such a system.

Dr. Orentlicher had an excellent riposte to this point. Our current system takes a winning candidate (who usually garners maybe 52% or 53% of the vote) and gives him 100% of the executive authority—and the gap between his support and his power there is even bigger. This brings me back to the point I made earlier about a schizophrenic approach to self-government: we oscillate back and forth constantly. Maybe it would be better to create a united front.

At the root of the proposal is the assertion that two presidents actually could work together. This is where the game theory comes in. We know that cooperation is the ideal long-term strategy for any relationship; the costs associated with being non-cooperative are high. And this applies pretty well to the coalition presidency theory, too, if we have a pretty closely divided consensus—like we do now. If, say, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were, in a hypothetical universe, co-presidents, I think they’d work together very well. They probably wouldn’t like it very much, but they’d be compelled to compromise, and we wouldn’t have gone through the same sequestration nonsense that was our recent collective shame to behold.

To take another example: The vaunted “Obamacare” statute, which I refuse to call by that silly name and prefer to call PPACA or just ACA, was crammed down Republicans’ throats thanks to a Democratic majority. But there was a lot going on in the anterior political scene that wasn’t as publicly visible. One example is the Obama administration’s handling of the insurance industry itself. The medical communities and insurance industry have polled quite opposed to ACA, and so supporters had to find a way to galvanize support—or, more realistically, quell opposition—from those forces.

One method was to threaten insurance companies with a federal regulatory regime. Currently, insurance law is made largely at the state level (with a few very noteworthy exceptions like ERISA and the McCarron-Ferguson Act), and insurers very much like that. There’s nothing really stopping Congress from seizing those reins, however, if it wants to (much to insurers’ detriment), and that’s exactly what the Obama administration threatened to do if ACA didn’t go through. It was a politically clever move, no doubt—but it’s also a good example of using majority political power to subvert the debate that should decide whether to proceed with ACA.  If the office held Presidents Obama and Romney, presumably President Romney would not stand for such an approach (he wouldn’t want a federal regulatory scheme and he wouldn’t want to use that sort of force to push a statute he doesn’t support), and the bill would be debated more on its merits, giving the insurance companies, who will be most affected by the proposed law and who are in the best position to discuss its effects, a chair at the table.

Still, I can’t hope but think that this system of forced cooperation won’t aid a popular consensus for long; one day there will be a dominant candidate and representation theory won’t justify watering down his political power with that of a weak runner-up. Plus, only one co-president at a time could have Congressional support, suggesting the minority president would serve as a prism of political opposition—it’s easy to imagine that external forces would get to the one person standing between an entire nation’s political majority and their goals.

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