American politics through foreign eyes
''The American political and electoral system makes it inevitable that mediocre presidents will continue to succeed one another.'' This is the harsh view of noted French journalist Raymond Aron, writing in Il Giornale in l980.
Whether or not one agrees that mediocrity characterizes the results of American national elections, it is disconcerting to realize that Mr. Aron reflects a widely-held European opinion of American politics.
In England, the Economist, the respected journal, calls us the world's most ponderous democracy. Here in West Germany, where American Pershing II missiles are about to be deployed (failing a major and unexpected breakthrough in disarmament talks in Geneva), politicians and voters alike deplore more than anything else the uncertainty engendered by the very process of selecting an American national leader.
In England just 26 days elapsed between the dissolution of the British Parliament and the much ballyhooed reelection of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this year. When West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl won his first full term last March, the campaign lasted just three weeks. France allots one month for the nomination of presidential candidates, and l5 days for the campaign. Compare that to the United States, where it takes a year to nominate and elect a president, preceded by at least a year of continuing campaigning through the tortuous primary trail. Is it any wonder that our allies are baffled and unnerved by a system that leaves the question of leadership in the US open to debate for at least half the term of office of the chief executive?
Consider, too, that it is probably another six months after election before a new administration is fully conversant with the complexities of the task before it is able to spark a measure of confidence from foreign political leaders. The Economist charges that American preoccupation with elections distracts from other aspects of politics, such as running the country. West German political observers are already resigned to the fact that the foreign policy and international economic decisions will be put on the back burner after November when the American election campaign gears up, and the administration will be resistant to take any bold measure that could endanger reelection chances.
Looking again at Raymond Aron's charge of mediocrity built into the American electoral system, consider the observation of the Economist that the lengthy nominations process discriminates against those who hold political jobs. In England, as in West Germany, the head of state (Prime Minister or Chancellor) most often comes from the ranks of incumbent elected representatives. Both Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl were able to conduct effective and successful campaigns for election while serving their respective constituencies - taking only a brief time-out from their legislative duties. In the US, the system of primaries and caucuses, spread out over six months and thousands of miles, gives to the out-of-office candidate a natural advantage.
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan won their parties' nominations from positions of strength - as ex-office holders. Howard Baker, who blamed his loss of the l 980 nomination on his full-time Senate duties as minority leader, will leave the Senate next year, leaving him unencumbered for a l988 presidential bid. But what about some of the others still in office - Cranston, Hart, Glenn, Hollings? How will they fulfill both their duties as senators and their obligations as presidential candidates?
Consider yet another difference between American and European viewpoints. The term professional politician is something of a pejorative in the American lexicon. In most of Europe, professionalism in politics is taken for granted, the metier is as respected as medicine, law or engineering. This makes for a corps of experienced and dedicated office-holders and seekers, to whom the running of the nation is considered a full-time job. No wonder our allies are sometimes dismayed that American presidents come from the ranks of peanut farmers and Hollywood actors. It also makes our friends abroad somewhat nervous when they compare the political experience of American leaders with that of their Soviet counterparts with whom they must negotiate.
Potential candidates and foreign observers are not the only ones turned off by the seemingly interminable election process. American voters are less than rabid in their response to the opportunity to exercise their franchise. Rather than clarifying issues or building up an enthusiastic body of voters, the nonstop campaigning appears to generate a voter apathy unmatched among western democracies. Twenty-seven percent of eligible American voters bothered to turn out for the last presidential election. By contrast, more than 90 percent of German voters took part in the contest between Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt. In the United Kingdom, Mrs. Thatcher won the majority of 83 percent of her country's voters. In France, the participation was 72 percent, and in America's northern neighbor, Canada, 69 percent. Concern regarding voter participation has led Harvard University and the American Broadcasting Company to announce a symposium on this vital topic Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in Washington.
Our friends abroad credit good old Yankee ingenuity for being able to cope with an electoral system which they view as a cross between a three-ring circus and a three-legged marathon. Is it not time to consider seriously some basic changes in the way we choose our presidents?
A shorter timetable for nomination and election would lessen the handicap now placed on candidates who hold elected office. We might even see a rise in voter participation if the balleyhoo were shorter and the balloting sooner.
Most importantly, an election process more reasonably scheduled, conducted with dignity and serious attention to issues of substance would go a long way toward rekindling the confidence of other nations in the country they look to as the world's most powerful democracy.