THE genius of the American political system lies in how it anticipates tendencies of human nature - particularly the impulse to test a leader. It has not the simple majoritarian rule of direct democracy. With three branches of government, none has a majority lead. Executive authority devolves not from the legislature as in parliamentary systems; and the judicial branch, nominated by one branch and confirmed by the other, referees the evolving rules of the game.
The American democracy is a tough league to win in, as President Clinton is learning in getting a budget compromise out of Congress. So far, he is succeeding in the House.
Clinton has plenty of adversity. His approval rating is on the wane. A suicide among his top legal aides has shaken a White House already dispirited by a series of botched initiatives. Republicans in both chambers, and Senate Democrats, withhold support. And scandal nips at the heels of a key House chairman.
Sweet adversity. A leader can rejoice in it.
To govern, a leader must have the majority of force going his way; otherwise things either stay put or veer off his course. A 51 percent majority can be cause for gratitude but it can overly involve a leader in the defense of his margin. Three-fifths majorities would put a leader within range of the two-thirds reserved for major veto-test issues.
Now, a leader may take up an assignment with at best, say, a 10 percent or so personal majority; few people may want him or her to succeed because he's Bill or she's Hillary. Popularity, we have known since junior high school, is overrated. The leader has to assemble the rest of what he needs from other resources.
These resources can include the goodwill of those who want to see the institution progress. The calendar presents new occasions for getting things done; failure to act within the time allotted can be shown to reflect as poorly on the opposition as on the leader himself. Reason, argument, and communication (going directly to the public) can strengthen the leader's hand.
The design of the institution itself may be inclined toward progress - or altered to do so. Beneficent institutions - colleges, governments, community agencies - have positive energies implicit in their missions that can be summoned forth. Boards, committees, staffs, departments that are routinely viewed as so much bureaucracy can offer opportunities for the presentation of cases and the enlistment of allies.
The principle here applies to all leaders - teachers, parents, managers, politicians, team captains, senior scouts: Majorities for action continually have to be earned; they are rarely volunteered. At times a leader must shame the opposition into going along by making fairness the unavoidable public standard. He tries to avoid self-justification, endless explanation, and other responses the opposition would trap him into. At the same time he wants to avoid the charge of arbitrariness by demonstrating due
process, consultation, and respect toward all parties concerned. He does not try for victory margins so large that on the next vote opponents - and allies - would want to cut him down to size.
When beset on every side, he quietly considers the selflessness of his motive and the good in his adversaries' approach; he welcomes the peace that can come from a spirit of service.
Lincoln did not hold the country together because he was Abe.
Lincoln was cartooned, ridiculed. He used intelligence. He used the powers of his office to replace generals who would not fight until he found one who would fight, Ulysses S. Grant. He deployed political enemies, the men who wanted his job, by appointing them to influential positions. He was empowered by justice: Freedom was superior to slavery, union to rebellion.
In American democracy, every interest begins with a minority stake. Majorities are earned. This week, we are watching Mr. Clinton apply himself to this test. He has a lot going for him that isn't named Bill: For one thing, a right goal - the country needs a sound deficit-reduction mix of spending cuts and tax increases. He knows by now that nobody is going to make it easy for him; he knows the hard work required on all fronts to get the job done.