Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Checks, Balances, and the Permanent Campaign

By Shawn Healy
Riley's post on elections and political transition in Great Britain was comprehensive and contained a comparative analysis, so I'll keep my response brief with a focus on the United States. I will assume most readers have an elementary understanding of American elections and the overall constitutional structure.

Americans are asked to go to the polls annually when local and countywide elections are coupled with statewide and federal elections. The latter coincide with even number years, and always involve all seats in the House of Representatives, along with one-third of the U.S. Senate. Presidential elections occur every four years and coincide with House and Senate elections.

Beyond the more sporadic nature of elections in Great Britain, the main difference between the system across the pond and the American experiment is defined by the separation of executive power from the legislative branch. As Riley so aptly demonstrated, executive authority at the monarchical level is only nominal, its locus instead centered in the House of Commons. The President of the United States presides over an independent executive branch. He nominates all members of his cabinet, and this officers are subject to Senate confirmation. The President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, serves as head of state, and may sign or veto legislation passed by Congress. He is charged with executing these laws.

This constitutional structure is not without grand design, for our initial structure was in reaction to the colonial rule of our British brethren. In attempting to stray so far from monarchical overreach the Continental Congress created a dysfunctional system that gave disproportionate power to state governments and lacked an independent executive. Its failure led to calls for reform and the calling of a constitutional convention to address its shortfalls. The 55 delegates who assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 scrapped the Articles of Confederation and drafted the Constitution that governs us this day.

Back to the future. With the 2006 takeover of Congress by the Democratic Party a distant memory, the 2008 presidential contest is well under way. While most expect the Democrats to retain control, the primary focus is on the crowded field to replace the current occupant of the oval office, a president with Nixonian approval ratings. Polling data suggests a generic Democrat would defeat his or her Republican counterpart if the election were held today. The election itself is a unique one given the fact that no incumbent President or Vice President is seeking the office, the first such contest since 1952 (Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, Act I).

The Democratic field is defined by the strongest female candidate in history, former First Lady and current NY Senator Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama, the junior Illinois Senator and political novice, promises to make this at least a two-horse race with his prolific fundraising skills and ability to inspire the masses in a manner reminiscent of JFK. John Edwards, former North Carolina Senate and VP candidate, leads the polls in Iowa and should also fare well in South Carolina, the first and third contests of the nominating process, making him the dark horse.

The Republican side is even more complicated. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Senator, was the presumptive front runner, but his campaign is faltering with his strong support of the troop surge in Iraq and sponsorship of the immigration reform bill killed in the Senate stymieing his fundraising outreach. Former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads national polls and has premised his campaign on competence and more specifically leadership during the war on terrorism. His moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage may derail his campaign among the core conservatives who vote in key primaries, however.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor, has surged to leads in Iowa and New Hampshire despite low name recognition nationally and shifting positions on major social issues. His Mormon faith may also cripple his campaign, not to mention his political base, the People's Republic of Massachusetts. The dark horse is former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson of TV's "Law and Order" Fame. In a field lacking an establishment conservative among the front runners, Thompson has a legion of followers even though he has yet to officially enter the race. Whether he is at the height of his popularity or he will play the role of President in Washington, not Hollywood, is among the many answers the next 16 months will reveal.

Taking a step back from the contemporary election environment, political transitions in the US and Great Britain, and the traditions and elections that facilitate them, are evidence that our respective political systems work. Power transcends people and parties as the system stands. Blair's making way from Brown, and Bush's eventual exit for an unknown successor are only the most recent examples.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

Powered by Blogger