Washington — What difference does it make whom we elect next November? Let me be consciously skeptical and provocative. Suppose we have elected our favorite. Let us call him Mr. Smith. A political honeymoon follows. There is the excitement of the inaugural address, selection of the new cabinet, the feeling of a new mood and atmosphere. Newsmen still have stories to write however. Carping creeps in. They look up Mr. Smith's promises. Criticism grows sharper.
The Washington political calendar shows that a new president normally peaks after election with a gradual erosion thereafter. He finds it hard to get things through Congress. The low point of his incumbency may come in the year of the next election: 1948 for Harry Truman, for example; 1980 for Jimmy Carter, 1984 for Mr. Smith.
Now let us be more specific. Suppose Mr. Smith is a Republican. (I have rather a hunch he will be, for I imagine that after the nation adjusts to the patriotic outpouring of Iran and Afghanistan it will nevertheless vote on the "pork chop issue" -- inflation. (I don't preclude Jerry Ford from emerging in the GOP convention at the last minute as a dark horse, if the present row continues among Republican contenders. he would be a formidable candidate.)
Very likely next year Mr. Smith will face a legislature that is Democratic. If Republicans capture Congress this year it will mean gaining 9 Senate seats; 59 House seats; such an overturn would be striking; it would indicate the emergence of a powerful Republican presidential personality, or perhaps voters' revulsion at some really spectacular economic slump. In any case, Congress has been Democratic for 26 years and may well continue so. Washington has seen split-government for 14 years (i.e., White House controlled by one party; Congress by another). Democrats controlled Congress six of Ike's eight years; all of the Nixon-Ford eight years. If's a funny way to run a government; foreigners can't understand it.
In any case, the new President Smith runs into the system of checks and balances and separation of powers. This is apt to slow him down. If he has a "split government" it will slow him down even more.
Let us now reverse the situation and suppose that Mr. Smith is a Democrat. Would it be Mr. Carter? I have always thought that Senator Kennedy's challenge was dubious. The power of incumbency is overwhelming. No president in the 20th century who really sought renomination has failed to get it.
For our scenario, anyway, let us suppose Mr. Carter gets the nomination and then achieves the much more difficult feat of winning re-election. He will almost certainly have a Democratic Congress in that case.Theoretically two-party control should speed up the legislative wheel. But parties are progressively weaker; special interest groups and lobbies are correspondingly strong. As we have all seen, Mr. Carter has had truble with a Democratic Congress -- Energy for example. i won't argue whose fault it is. But in a really wrenching domestic issue like energy, with no war crisis to speed things up, the American government sometimes moves like a snail. (The Constitution was written 200 years ago; today's problems are jet- propelled).
And here is a new factor if Mr. Carter is reelected. The 22nd Amendment limits him to two terms -- four more years. He can't run again. he is a lame duck. Advocates of this amendment argued that it "removed the president from politics." But Washington is politics. (A variation for this system is the proposal for one six-year term). I would favor this plan if we were electing a governor-general, or a king. But for a political leader? -- I have doubts.
James L. Sundquist, in a forthcoming study for the Brookings Institution, in a forthcoming study for the Brookings Institution, lists three rare periods of dynamic White House-Congressional cooperation in this century: the first two years of Wilson; the first term of Roosevelt; the first two years of Lyndon Johnson. Such intervals come very rarely in American government.
Alienation of voters shows up in polls taken by the Center of Political Studies of the University of Michigan. An opinion poll from another source asked citizens in 1958 whether they trusted the government "to do the right thing" most of the time? Yes, said 73 percent. Asked again 20 years later, the result: 68 percent who said "none of the time, or only some of the time."
Disillusionment also finds its way into voting records. In 1976 only 54.4 percent of those eligible to vote, voted. Stalemate in Washington alienates some. Failure of presidents to accomplish their goals upsets others. Maybe results will be different this year. I hope so.