Checks, Balances, and the Permanent Campaign
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.