Revving up the two-party system
Boston — A post-primary call to Democrats has already gone out: Stick to your ideological guns; don't compromise principles; develop a strong liberal-to-left stance in opposition to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan; and finally, look past this November and your party will be stronger for it!
Who is saying this? Some Republican eager to finesse Democrats into Titanic-like vulnerability?
By no means! The advice comes from a vintage New Dealer, loyalist Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt confidant, and all-around liberal thinker: presidential historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns. Professor Burns, whose books on the US system have driven students to study and politicians to ponder, flatly warns the Democratic faithful to shore up their party allegiances or risk facing electoral oblivion in 1984 - and even beyond.
His model for success? None other than the current President of the United States who, he says, has spelled out with distinction the meaning of conservatism and the dominant themes of today's Republican Party. Democrats would do well to follow the Reagan example, Burns holds, by solidifying their left-of-center positions. And in so doing, he avers, they may pull into their ranks tens of millions of the poor, minorities, and have-nots who are not now represented by either party.
Burns is a staunch believer in the two-party system, which he insists must be strengthened from within for the US system to operate effectively. He also calls for shoring up the executive office. ''I emphasize that I don't want to strengthen the one-man presidency, but I want to strengthen the teamwork aspect of the presidency,'' he explains.
The political historian's new book, ''The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency'' (Simon & Schuster, $16.95), spells out fundamental changes in the structure and operation of the political system which, he says, must be made to bolster ''party renewal.'' Among them: allowing US senators and representatives to hold concurrent posts in the presidential Cabinet; extending House terms from two to four years, with elections held at the same time as White House contests; the creation of a ''team ticket,'' with voters casting a single ballot for president, senator, and congressman; replacing state-by-state presidential primaries with party caucuses; and permitting impeachment whenever an Oval Office incumbent has lost public confidence (not just when he has committed ''high crimes and misdemeanors'').
In an interview at the Monitor offices here, Burns added he would repeal the constitutional amendment which limits a president to two terms - as a balance to the possibility of loss-of-credibility removal. He said he didn't believe very many incumbents would seek a third term, but feels it is better to leave White House tenure to ''popular restraint'' than to impose a legal ban.
The Burns ''team ticket'' and ''teamwork'' concepts go right to the heart of his quest to rev up the party system. Requiring voters to cast a ballot for a party slate (president, senator, and US representative) would ensure that executive leadership and the majority in Congress are in tune politically. This ideological unity would make for more effective government, Burns insists, because it would force voters to make a commitment to a particular party and its programs.
As another means of bolstering the system, the historian-political scientist opts for a ''bridge'' between the president and Congress by the appointment of elected representatives to Cabinet posts. Conceding that this is a highly controverial idea, one that challenges the long-cherished separation of powers, Burns nevertheless sees it as a definite plus - particularly in the international relations arena.
He says, for example, that if the chairman of the Senate's foreign policy committee were to be appointed secretary of state, it would ''help the president with his Senate relationships and also serve as a constraint on the president from an independent position of power.''
Burns holds that Cabinet members who are appointed under the present system have no political-power base, can be hired and fired on White House whim, and are virtually ''presidential flunkies.''
To further shore up partisan loyalties, Burns would require annual party conventions. Among other things, these would allow the party out of power to rally behind an identifiable leader.
Right now, it is still unclear who is the dominant force in the Democratic Party, Burns points out, and as a result President Reagan ''keeps taking potshots in a lot of different directions.''
Burns says many of the changes he proposes (some of which would need a constitutional amendment to be effected) are aimed at ''giving people a real choice at the polls; making the conflict (election campaigns) meaningful; and playing down consensus bipartisanship, except during wartime or a national crisis.
''This would make it possible for those who win an election to carry out their programs,'' he adds.
James MacGregor Burns is Woodrow Wilson professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. A political activist, he has unsuccessfully sought congressional office as a Democrat but has served as a delegate to presidential conventions. A former president of the American Political Science Association, Burns now is a co-chairman of its prestigious ''Project '87,'' which is gearing up programs for the bicentennial of the US Constitution in 1987.
''If we really want to honor the framers of the Constitution,'' he points out , ''we would show their capacity to stand back from the system of the day, which was the Articles of Confederation, and to evaluate that system of government in terms of the next 100 years.''
Burns continues: ''Essentially the frame was really built. Probably they thought they were building for 100 years, but we now know they were building for a couple of hundred years.
''The issue now,'' he concludes, ''is whether that Constitution is appropriate for yet a third century - the one coming up.''
Essentially, Burns feels, it is appropriate - if the system is carefully refurbished and Americans are true to their ideological ideals.