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The Mushy Center

A Different Kind of Presidency: A Proposal for Breaking the Political Deadlock

by Theodore C. Sorensen

(Harper & Row, 134 pp., $11.95)

If Senator Gary Hart gets back on the track toward the Democratic Presidential nomination, and if the candidate decides to follow the carefully considered advice of his campaign co-chairman, Theodore Sorensen, here's what will happen. At some point, preferably before the convention, Hart will announce that his running mate will be not some southern or eastern ethnic big-state Democrat, preferably a former Mondale supporter who can help bind up the wounds, etc., but rather a Republican. A Republican. That's not all. Hart will also solemnly promise that if elected he and his Republican Vice President will serve only a single term, and that under no circumstances will they run for reelection. And there's more. President Hart will form a Coalition Government, dividing the cabinet, the subcabinet, and the White House staff into two equal halves, Democratic and Republican. Also, he will appoint a Council of Elders, consisting of all living ex-Presidents, ex-Secretaries of State, ex-Speakers of the House, and ex- Senate Majority Leaders. Also, he will appoint a National Council of Economic Cooperation and Coordination (a lot of this Stuff gets capitalized), which will come up with answers for the economy. Also, there will be a joint executive-legislative delegation to any arms control talks, the better to ensure that any treaty that gets negotiated also gets ratified. This last idea isn't bad, by the way. It didn't work when President Carter tried a modified form of it with SALT II, but still. A fairly good idea.

The rest of these ideas, though, are terrible. They would be cause for alarm if there were any chance Hart would adopt them. Fortunately there is not. Hart is not about to saddle himself with this particular set of proposals. His taste for "new ideas" is not so indiscriminate.

Sorensen had already joined the Hart campaign when he was writing this book. But he doesn't address his exhortations to Hart, or even to the Democrats exclusively. He insists that his plan "is available to all candidates" of either party. But he also insists that the plan must be implemented this year. Think about it. This year's Republican candidate is President Reagan. How likely is he to kick Vice President Bush off his ticket, replace him with a Democrat on the order of John Glenn or Fritz Hollings, fire half his cabinet and staff, replace them with Democrats, and then spend four years ruling in the name of "a centrist, moderate and flexible philosophy"? Not very likely, especially when the premise of all this is that "a whole generation of young Americans cannot remember life under a President whom they truly respected" and that “the problem is larger than Ronald Reagan,” i.e., Reagan is part of the problem. Reagan doesn't mind a bit of bipartisanship when it helps spread around the blame for some politically difficult step like raising Social Security taxes and cutting benefits. He likes it even better when he can use it to entice some Democrats into embracing one of his own tar babies, like the MX missile or the militarization of Central America. But this is one politician for whom “centrism" holds no charms. 

No, Sorensen is talking to the Democrats if he is talking to anybody at all, and for them his scheme would be tantamount to ideological surrender. Forget the debate now going on in the Democratic Party about how the party can best renew itself as an instrument for social justice at home and a reliable peace abroad. Forget about "new ideas" and “traditional values"; forget about ideas and values altogether. Forget about forging a political vision that can vanquish Reagan’s ideology of greed and primitive Russophobia. Hail the Coalition Government! Long live the Council of Eiders! All power to the mushy center! 

Perhaps it is unfair to treat this scheme as a serious, real world plan of action—although Sorensen gives no sign that he is not in deadly earnest; one looks in vain for a nudge or a wink that might suggest a trace of ironic self-awareness. Perhaps it makes more sense to view A Different Kind of Presidency as an intellectual exercise, a basis for discussion. Seen in this light, it stacks up only slightly better. 

If Coalition Government is the solution, what is the problem? Why, it's "The Dangers of Partisan Excess," as Sorensen subtitles the first half of his pamphlet-cum-memo. Under this rubric he gathers together a large number of justifiable complaints about the way things are. We are suffering, he says, from "political gridlock." We've lost confidence in our institutions and our leaders. Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, the collapse of SALT, and the nuclear danger have made us suspicious of confrontation and negotiation alike. Watergate, Japanese cars, the persistence of poverty, and the deficit have made us sourly skeptical of the functioning of our political and economic system. (This had an oddly familiar ring. Then I remembered: President Carter's "malaise” speech. Well, Carter was right about the diagnosis if not about the cure, and so is Sorensen.) There is no consensus in either domestic or foreign affairs. Our government, Sorensen thinks, is "all check and no balance." We face "a systemic condition of paralysis."

In saying this, Sorensen deserves credit for saying something that is no longer fashionable. The notion that the system doesn't work has supposedly been rendered anachronistic by Reagan’s alleged success in changing the direction of American government. There is less to that success than meets the eye, however. Reagan has succeeded rather dramatically in bloating the parts of the budget devoted to weapons purchases and interest payments, and in starving the parts devoted to human services. In foreign policy, he has deftly wrecked arms control and relations with the Soviet Union. But he should have been able to do more. His only legislative achievement was the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which was both watered down and gussied up. Reagan wanted a simple, regressive, across-the-board, three-year personal income tax cut, 10 percent each year. Congress pared this to 5-10-10, added indexing, and threw in a few hundred billion dollars worth of extra breaks for corporate interests. Otherwise, Reagan has gotten virtually nothing—no school prayer, no criminalization of abortion, no gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Even such simple administrative adjustments as abolishing the Department of Education and the Legal Services Corporation have been beyond his power.

The Republicans want to convince the public that President Reagan is a strong leader. The Democrats want to stick him with the responsibility for economic pain, and at the same time to avoid charges that they are obstructionists who never gave his program a fair chance. Therefore the Republicans and the Democrats have a mutual interest in maintaining the myth that Reagan got what he wanted from Congress. That’s why you don't hear so many people talking anymore about how the system doesn’t work. "The last three years have shown how wrong they were,” Reagan himself recently boasted in a speech to the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary, referring to those who deplore the inadequacies of the governmental system. Actually, the last three years show how right they were, and it’s no disparagement of Reagan's political skills to say so. In fact it's a perverse compliment. 

Sorensen seems fitfully to understand that the problem is systemic, but he is unwilling to acknowledge that the solution must therefore be systemic also. The Founders' scheme is sacred; but then so was the Latin mass. It does not seem strange to me that there might be room for improvement in a system designed by fifty-five provincial squires and Enlightenment gentlemen during a few weeks of frantic compromising two hundred years ago, excellent though that system was for a long time. But Sorensen’s boldness stops short of "tinkering with the Constitution," even though that is what his analysis requires. He doesn't want to change the system. He just wants to suspend it.      

Sorensen never offers satisfactory reasons for his conclusion that “partisan excess" is at the root of our woes. He seems to regard it as self-evident. But beneath the surface of his argument lie at least three unstated false premises. 

The first is that the only meaningful political division in the country is the partisan one—that is, the division between Democrats and Republicans. To bridge that division is therefore to achieve unity. Yet there are many other fault lines in the American political landscape, and few of them correspond exactly to the partisan division: liberal (Lowell Weicker) vs. conservative (Sam Nunn); temperamentally radical (Lewis Lehrman, Christopher Dodd) vs. temperamentally temperate (Howard Baker, Tom Bradley); puritan vs. libertine; sunbelt vs. frostbelt; smokestack vs. microchip; post-World War II vs. post-Vietnam; rich vs. poor; and on into the night. Each party, moreover, is rent by struggle between what might be called Establishment and anti-Establishment factions. Although Sorensen's candidate of the moment, Hart leads the Democrats’ anti-Establishment wing, Sorensen’s own plan for a Coalition Government is a recipe for a kind of coup d’état by the combined Establishment factions of both parties. 

The second unstated premise is that the extremes of left and right pose equal dangers to Sorensen-type good government. How I wish that were true. But the melancholy fact is that right-wing extremism is the only kind that has any impact on serious politics in this   country. In support of his contention that Americans prefer their politicians "more moderate and less extreme," Sorensen notes that "major party nominees like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern received comparatively few electoral votes." But a major party nominee named Ronald Reagan received comparatively many. For nearly   twenty years Reagan has been the leader of the ideological right wing of the Republican Party; as President he has also won the allegiance of many, perhaps most, neoconservative Democrats. The United States has never had a President of the left in the sense that Reagan is a President of the right; that is, no established leader of the left wing of the Democratic Party has ever won the White House. Once this happens there will be plenty of time for tut-tutting about "the purists of both parties." For now, though, the American right is flushed with triumph; the American left, such as it is, is demoralized. Sorensen's idea that the Democrats should devote their energies to forming a non-ideological, nonpartisan Coalition Government is a symptom of that demoralization, and, in a small way, a spur to it.   

The third unstated assumption is that the way to find solutions to problems is by the political equivalent of bisecting an angle. Go forth in search of the magical middle, and there ye shall find truth. Sorensen turns the dialectic on its head. Progress does not emerge from conflict; it emerges from the muffling of conflict. Sorensen evidently believes that if you can put enough respectable representatives of the dead center of American politics into a room and insulate them from the democratic process, the result will be wise policies wisely administered. This seems improbable. "Consensus does not mean diluting every controversy to the point of insignificance, dividing every issue down the middle, reducing every policy to the lowest common denominator," Sorensen protests. What then does it mean? Sorensen does not say.

The goofiness of Sorensen's "Coalition Government" becomes manifest in the twenty or so pages he devotes to actual policy. In a chapter entitled "An Economic Consensus," he describes his proposed National Council of Economic Cooperation. Even though it will be limited to "amaximum of twenty men and women," it will have room for "members" from the cabinet, the Office of Management and Budget, the Federal Reserve Board, the Council of Economic Advisers, state governments, local governments, industry, labor, finance, agriculture, education, consumer groups, public-interest groups, and groups representing the poor. "The President would personally conduct each session." These mind-numbing meetings would take up "enormous blocks of time." Yes, but what would the Council actually do? Apart from instituting a budget freeze and somehow producing "better coordination," Sorensen doesn't know. He lists a great many ideas the Council may wish to recommend—industrial policy, export controls, regulatory changes, and so on. "Or," he adds brightly, "after extensive study, it may wish to recommend none of these initiatives." Well, never mind. By then the four years will probably be up anyway.

Sorensen has a better idea of what he wants in the area of arms control. He is for a "unilateral initiative." This is a fine old phrase that, to me, poignantly recalls that crisp fall weekend a generation ago when earnest marchers from Tocsin, the Harvard peace group, politely picketed the White House and President Kennedy sent them out a tureen of hot coffee, possibly at Sorensen's urging. The "unilateral initiative" for 1985 would be an immediate U.S. freeze on the production, testing, and deployment of strategic nuclear weapons, to be continued as long as the Russians did likewise and pending negotiation of formal treaties. I think this is an excellent idea. But it is considerably more radical than anything being suggested by even the Democratic candidates, all of whom speak of a bilateral, negotiated freeze. It is absurd to imagine that it might be embraced by a bipartisan coalition.      

In 1970 Renata Adler published a collection of her essays and entitled it Toward a Radical Middle—agood joke. Theodore Sorensen, however, has no time for levity. He has become the real thing: a genuine extremist of the center, a zealot on fire with moderation. In proposing to suspend partisan politics, he is proposing to suspend democratic politics. He is probably right that strong measures are needed, but they should be aimed at strengthening the parties, not temporarily abolishing them; making the government more responsive, not insulating it; giving alternating liberal and conservative Administrations a chance to try their remedies, not merging them together into a mush of mugwumpery. Sorensen ends his book by paraphrasing Jefferson: "We are all democrats; we are all republicans." Maybe. But even if we're all democrats we're not all Democrats. And I for one am no Republican.  

Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker. He was the editor of The New Repubic from 1981-1985, and again, from 1988-1991.