The president has always been the central actor in American politics. But over the last several decades, the spotlight on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has shined ever brighter. And for good reason. For decades, the presidency has become ever more powerful as an overwhelmed and gridlocked Congress has left more and more to the executive branch. Some of Congress' self-imposed decline has come through specific delegations of authority, some by rolling over and letting the president dictate the legislative agenda, and some through sheer inaction and neglect.
Taken together, the decadeslong metastasizing of presidential power has corresponded to two other major, detrimental trends in American politics: partisan polarization andnationalized politics. Essentially, President Donald Trump and those who preceded him have too much power, and that's ruining our electoral process — which is the heart of democracy.
The core problem with the central focus in the presidency is that it has consumed our ability to evaluate individual candidates for Congress — and state and local office — independent of the presidency. Every choice, from bottom to top of the November ballot, is a referendum on the presidency.
This phenomenon discourages individual representatives and state and local officials from carving out an independent record. And it collapses our two parties into two highly disciplined, hyperpartisan teams, competing for a narrow and elusive majority control. This makes for a fully binary partisan alignment fundamentally at odds with our constitutional structure of separated powers, which themselves demand broad compromise-oriented policymaking.
As the two parties have separated into discrete non-overlapping coalitions, the zero-sum emotional stakes of every election continue to escalate so that each one is the most important in a lifetime. Local issues and personal characteristics matter less than which party controls the White House and the Congress.
And if individual representatives' fortunes depend on the president's popularity, all energy naturally flows to boosting or disqualifying the current White House resident (depending on their party). Consider the recent impeachment proceedings as Exhibit A.
Consider, too, how much frustration and hand-wringing the Democratic primary has generated. The overwhelming centrality of the presidency is to blame: If everything in politics and political power revolves around winning the presidency, of course we'll obsess over the endless nomination process.
The problems are many. The process seems arbitrary, and unfair to some constituencies and states, but too solicitous of others. It relies too much on voters' whims and last-minute choices, or perhaps it doesn't trust voters enough. The debates are a mess. And, there are too many candidates; with all that media spotlight, why not run for president? Even if you lose, more people will know your name.
But while a run might help a politician individually, collectively it's a disaster. A crowded field is a divided field. And so now comes the challenge for Joe Biden, at this point essentially the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee: somehow unify the fractured field.
The obvious way to unify a party is to unify around the common enemy. In 2016, Republicans voted to defeat Hillary Clinton, and Democrats voted to defeat Donald Trump. The 2020 campaign will almost certainly be even more negative, if that's possible.
In the end, skeptical Democrats will mostly vote for their nominee because the threat of four more years of Trump is terrifying. And wavering Republicans will likely grin and bear Trump because of ... Hunter Biden? The Supreme Court? Whatever the rationales given, by November, both sides will fear and hate each other just a little more. And somehow, the winner will still have to be the president of all the people. At least in theory.
And yet, for all the expanded powers of the presidency, that power is still limited. Almost all of the major proposals Democrats have been arguing over — "Medicare for All," free college, major gun control legislation — are unlikely to survive the legislative gauntlet in a starkly divided Congress.
These limits haven't stopped potential presidents from over-promising what they can accomplish. After all, bold promises are exciting and attention-grabbing. But since sky-high expectations are bound to disappoint, it's no wonder so many feel frustrated by the process.
Ironically, this frustration boosts support for outsider candidates, who can make even bigger, bolder promises of more aggressive executive action that can't be fulfilled. And as resentment turns to anger, all that anger has to go somewhere. Partisan leaders have a strong incentive to channel it against the other party.
The obvious alternative to our endlessly disappointing president-as-messiah ordeal is a stronger Congress. The national legislature is the only institution capable of reflecting and negotiating the diverse pluralism of a large country such as ours and hashing out broad compromises. But Congress hasn't lived up to that mission. Instead, it has become a hyperpartisan, money-driven, top-down institution.
Reversing 40 years of institutional decline is no easy task. But it at least starts with Congress investing much more in its own capacity to make policy, and taking its cues more from bipartisan committee work than from the executive branch.
All of which is difficult to imagine happening without major structural change, such as fundamental electoral reform that scrambles the two-party system. Change is unlikely because we're stuck in a feedback loop. A weaker, more polarized Congress leads to a stronger, more partisan presidency which leads to a weaker, more polarized Congress which ... Breaking that doom loop is a book-length topic.
But our current setup means that no matter what happens in November, too many people will feel like they are completely left out. So we need to find a way to elevate Congress — the only institution capable of representing the different constituencies of the country and working out compromises among them. Instead of searching for a single savior, we need to understand that no person alone can represent a country as big and diverse as America.
- Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at the think tank New America, co-host of the Politics in Question podcast and author of the new book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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