Monday, September 26, 2005

I Like the US Way of Electing Leaders Better

After the 2000 US presidential election, with its disputed returns and the resultant inauguration of a candidate who had received a majority from the Electoral College but a minority of the popular vote, it wasn't uncommon for Europeans, in particular, to deride the US system for selecting our chief executives. But I think that if I lived in Germany today, I'd be pining for our way of doing things.

Germany operates under a parliamentary system. Its recent elections resulted in what can only be described as a hung jury. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its coalition partner, the Greens, came in second, but only a few percentage points behind their main opposition, the Christian Democratic Party under the lackluster leadership of Angela Merkel.

Chancellor and SPD leader, Gerhard Schroeder, argues that he should lead a coalition government. The argument he uses to legitimize this assertion seems to be that he and his party did better than the pundits or the pollsters had expected. While it's true that Schroeder had seemed on the brink of political humiliation several months ago, his party's policies and his leadership were still repudiated by about 67% of the German electorate and they did finish second.

None of that would have been possible were it not for the apparently unconvincing campaign waged by Merkel and compatriots. This is somewhat stunning. Just months ago, all the tumblers seemed to be aligned for Merkel to take unambiguous control of the government. The German economy, though showing signs of some recovery recently, is sluggish at best, with widespread unemployment.

Pundit Mark Steyn believes that Germans couldn't bring themselves to vote for Merkel's center-right coalition--though it came in first, it was repudiated by about 64% of the electorate--because in doing so, they knew they would be administering themselves strong medicine. A Merkel government with a majority behind it would likely introduce market reforms to the economy and pare down the costly social programs that many feel are bogging down the German economy. (Already, Schroeder's government had introduced such measures, resulting in some erosion of its support. But Germans apparently feel that Merkel et al will wield administer more exacting surgery on their social welfare state.)

Given the tenuous condition of what the latest issued of The Economist magazine calls Europe's largest and most troubled economy, the mixed results of Germany's elections can hardly bode well. Several leading economic indicators there have weakened since election day.

Any coalition government that emerges in the weeks before a late-October deadline that must be met, including a so-called "grand coalition" between Merkel's and Schroeder's alliances, will be inherently weak and unwieldy, unlikely to pass the kinds of reforms Germany desperately needs right now.

Be that as it may, the American system of electing members of the Executive and Legislative branches separately rarely results in the kinds of limbo situations that happen with frequency in countries that operate under parliamentary systems. In only two presidential elections, those of 1876 and 2000, have the results been in doubt for long periods of time.

Yes, we have had Presidents come to office with less than majority support. Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious in a four-candidate race in 1860 with under 40% of the vote (and about 54% of the Electoral College's ballots). Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912, in a thrre-way race, after garnering 39% of the vote. Bill Clinton didn't receive majority popular support in either 1992 or 1996.

But the Electoral College system, for all its supposed deficiencies, has regularly yielded an undisputed President in all but two US elections since George Washington took office in 1789.

Some point to "divided government," the term used to describe periods when the White House is controlled by one party and the Congress by another, as an inherent risk in our system. It's said that the result is gridlock and inertia as Congresses fail to dispose what Presidents propose.

But it might more readily be argued that there's actually greater risk when the Executive and Legislative branches are controlled by a single party. For decades, Republicans rightly railed against the Democrats in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for their deficit spending, in budgets rife with pork. And since President Bush came to town five years ago, he has yet to veto a single piece of legislation passed by Republican Congresses, all the while sending the budget way into the red, much of it because of massive pork.

By contrast, the first Reagan tax cut was approved by a Democratic Congress. Bill Clinton successfully presided over budget surpluses after Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections. He also worked with Republicans to get through an ambitious program of welfare reform.

So, contrary to popular myth and frequent European critiques, divided government may actually be a good thing.

The same can't be said for coalition governments under parliamentary systems. Indeed, such a government is probably the last thing Germany needs right now. The negotiators for the various parties there might do well to forego establishing bad marriages now and go at it again in another election. A government with a clearer mandate might emerge.

Once that happens, maybe Germany ought to consider adopting our system for electing chief executives and legislators.

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