What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

Agree? Disagree? Tell me

My Other Blog

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Anyone who follows Israeli politics knows what a crazy quilt system they have. They have anywhere from 15 to 20 parties involved in national elections and any party getting as much as two percent of the vote can place a representative in the Knesset. Israelis don’t vote for individuals - just for a party. With this nutty system there’s almost never one party that wins a sufficient majority to form a government - so the party that finishes up with the most votes has to put together a coalition - which often includes parties that won the tinniest fraction of the overall vote. You sometimes wonder how they manage to survive as a democracy and are able to change governments relatively smoothly with such a cockamamie system. Can you imagine what our elections would be like if we had to deal with the Israeli system? The election would be held, the votes counted, and no party would emerge with enough votes to be able to declare itself the winner - so whichever party won the most votes would have to go to work to put together the elements of a new government - a task that could take weeks - maybe as long as 77 days - and in the meantime there would be a lame duck government running the country.

Well of course we don’t have that kind of system - but we do have similarities that are - in my humble opinion - just as cockamamie. You’d think that in a rational world - and in a democratic society -that once a national election is over and a winner declared, there’d be a new government ready to take over. The old guard would exit graciously and the new crowd would move in - the two groups nodding to each other politely as they passed by on the White House lawn.. A smooth, seamless transition. So smooth that in a complicated world where crises could erupt at any moment, our involvement or relationship to those crises would be affected not one whit by the change in our government. Except of course that our government would not have been changed - it would only be in the process of being formed in preparation for a change. We would be undergoing an "Israeli moment" - as we are now experiencing in the count down to January 20, 2009.

Barack Obama keeps telling us that we only have one president at a time - but that’s only technically correct. In reality we have two presidents - an old one keeping things running with a caretaker government while a new one puts the new government together and begins to set the policy basics of his administration . I’m not sure what you’d call this intermediate period of time - other than confusing. We could of course call it the "period of punditry." As each member of the new government is selected or as individual selections appear to be imminent - .pundits and panels of pundits fill the airways and newspaper and magazine pages with endless speculation about who will be chosen - why they are qualified or not qualified and what hidden meanings we should glean from various selections. It’s almost like a second round of the election - with confirmation hearings yet to come on the ministerial selections.

Although the Bush administration is in a "winding down" mode, we’re not exactly without leadership. If some critical event occurs that requires an immediate presidential decision, we have someone in office who can make that decision. Nonetheless, this "no man’s land" period of limbo between a national election and the assumption of power by a newly elected president and his cabinet members has to qualify as a routine period of concern. It would be far better if the new president could take over in a much shorter time - say a week after the election has been decided. We could do away with the casting of electoral votes - or have them cast immediately - maybe by e-mail. And if we couldn’t do that, maybe we could pick up on Jeb Bush’s latest idea - and have a "shadow government" in place and ready to take over before any election is even held. A permanent shadow government that’s in place throughout the entire term of the administration in power.

That’s the parliamentary method practiced in England and it works well there. Whenever there’s a change in that government - from Conservative to Labour (yes, that's how they spell it) or - as is likely in their next election - from Labour to Conservative, the voters know in advance who will be filling major governmental posts , because the party not in power maintains a "shadow government." If the Conservatives win the next election, David Cameron will become Prime Minister and other ministerial posts will be filled by Conservative M.P.’s who already hold those posts in the shadow government. There’ll be no speculation about who will be picked for what job and there’ll be no surprises revealed by "vetting." And best of all there’s no need for extended punditry about any of these issues following a national election - for which the British public must be eternally grateful - particularly those who have visited these shores during our presidential election season.

Of course the drawback in Jeb Bush’s idea is the business of primaries. You can’t very well have a shadow government unless you know who your party’s presidential nominee will be - but you could have something like it without calling it a shadow government so that Republicans could speak with one voice on specific issues. That would call for a new way to look at political party structure and perhaps the reintroduction of the "smoke filled rooms" with insiders picking the major players. You’d still have to have primaries. Messy at it is, that’s become the established way of picking presidential candidates . But if the shadow government concept could be established - and if members of the party out of power found it working to their advantage - a strong presidential nominee could emerge before the primary season even began - and we cold be spared the sight of all those presidential wannabes displaying their egos for months on end.

But the change that would be most desirable would be to shorten the time between the known outcome of a presidential election and the swearing in of a new president. The shorter the time, the less vulnerable we would be to fast moving world events. The first inauguration day - that of George Washington, was set for March 4, giving states nearly four months to cast their ballots. With information moving by horseback, it made sense in 1789. The twentieth amendment changed it to January 20- and while we weren’t confined to horses to move information in 1933, perhaps a 77 day interval was appropriate for a slower time in history. But it makes little sense in the twenty first century. Any newly elected president worth his salt already knows who he wants as his cabinet members way before November 4 - and there’s no way that a sitting president needs 77 days to move out of the White House.

On April 1, 1997, the British voting public went to the polls and substituted a Labour majority for the ruling Conservative party. The turnout among eligible voters was 71.3% - the lowest in years. We should have such a "low" turnout. But more instructive to us is what happened after all the votes had been counted. Conservative party Prime Minister John Major resigned and Tony Blair became the new Prime Minister on April 3,1997!! Note the date. Two days after the election. One government out and a new one in. There were no known pundit suicides, no riots in the streets and the London stock exchange opened and closed that day without incident.

We got the basics of our common law from the mother country and in some ways improved on them. But then we put together that darned constitution - something the mother country doesn’t have, making it difficult for us to make rational changes in the way we conduct ourselves when they scream out for change. But we can change if there’s a will. All we need is another amendment to that impediment of a constitution. Who would argue with shortening the time between a presidential election and the swearing in of a new president? So let this humble blog be the first plea for a new amendment changing the time between election and inauguration to one week or less. Congress take note.