The carnage of election night, 1980, has underscored a costly and debilitating weakness in American political life. Our system and our habits virtually guarantee that aspirants to leadership will sooner or later be figuratively killed off. Extended careers in elective politics, state as well as national, are either impossible or so taking and hazardous that individuals may be destroyed by their own success.
This expendable leadership is demanded in part by our constitutional structure and in part simply by attitudes and traditions. By tradition the vanquished are dubbed "losers," especially if they suffer this misfortune twice in a row, and no one will take them seriously henceforth whatever their talent. The career or political leadership in our system is like a roman gladiator -- you have a 50 percent chance of being annihilated each time you try to take another step up the ladder.
These dubious odds put tremendous stress on the individual aspirant to higher office, and on his or her family as well. Our politics have become so personalized that success depends heavily on a potential leader's private resources, not only to run but to accommodate the disruption of career in case of defeat. Further, defeat can undo all the effort a candidate may have invested in less conspicuous public service up to that point. No wonder it is so hard to get competent people to run, particularly when the odds look dim.
Our system, comparable to "sudden- death" athletics competition, is hard on the governing process as well as the individual. Candidates for the top of the ticket, state as well as national, more often than not come out of the legislative branch, as they should. But when they fail, either in a primary or in the general election, they are lost to public service at any level -- unless they are able toughly to make their way back in another year as Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey did.
Our system affords no automatic opportunity for the fallen standard bearer to switch over and function as the leader of the opposition. The beaten party is usually left in headless disarray until new leaders can emerge in the legislative milieu or capture public attention by their media exploits.
Things need not be this bad, if we consider the European and Canadian parliamentary practice. The prime minister and cabinet of a party rejected by the voters ordinarily keep their individual parliamentary seats and automatically take up the task of leading the opposition. Their careers remain intact and their experience remains available.The party determines its leadership in midterm, not as part of the election campaign, and unsuccessful aspirants can continue to function in the legislative-executive team instead of being cast by the wayside as in the American primary system.
Ocassional calls have been heard already to attack our current political debilities by restructuring American politics along parliamentary lines. Obviously such a general revamping, requiring not only a fundamental constitutional change but a profound break with deep-seated traditions and habits, would be extremely difficult to accomplish. But some benefits of the parliamentary system could be secured on a more modest, piece- meal basis.
One easy step would be to drop the requirement, sometimes statutory, sometimes only traditional, that a legislator reside in his or her constituency. Leave it up to the voters, and allow the parties to arrange vacancies so that their unsuccessful candidates for higher office can return to legislative or congressional leadership. This possibility would give the party continuity in defeat and allow its established figures to make a reasonable career commitment.
The same goal could be achieved in most cases simply by allowing party leaders to run for re-election to their legislative seats simultaneously with their bid for higher office. In most states custom is the only bar to this recourse, and in some instances it has actually been done, notably when Lyndon Johnson won re-election to his US Senate seat while running on the national ticket with John Kennedy.
Another alternative is the idea of granting defeated candidates for higher office a special seat in the Congress or the state legislatures as the case may be. This would require constitutional amendments if they are to be accorded a vote, but it could be effected simply through the legislative rules if they would be willing to serve as nonvoting spokesmen of their party.
A final thought is to relieve the problems both of party continuity and the prolonged agony of our primary system by moving the nominating process not closer to the election but back to a midterm date. Thus the party's standard bearer could function like the parliamentary leader in the actual policy process and have experience and responsibility in real program formulation for at least a year or two prior to going before the voters.
All of these steps would break with tradition at a time when the nation's mood is to retreat into the past. Yet the tasks of rationally governing this vast land demand that we find a way to make the most of whatever human talent we can salvage from the m eat grinder of elective politics.