11 Nov 2008

Obama Defied Founder’s Intent

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M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948.

In a now famous 2002 radio interview, Barack Obama regretted the Warren Court’s failure to break free from “the essential constraints placed in the Constitution by the founding fathers.”

In Newsweek, George Will discusses how Obama’s very candidacy represented a fundamental break with constraints intended by the founding fathers. Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate in US history to achieve election, in the manner of an Escher print, on the basis of no personal achievement beyond the competence and well-oiled organization of his actual campaign for the presidency.

James W. Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, notes that, contrary to conventional understanding, the Constitution created not three but four “national institutions.” They are the Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency—and the presidential selection system, based on the Electoral College. “The question of presidential selection,” Ceaser writes, “was just that important to the Founders.”

Under their plan, the nomination of candidates and the election of the president were to occur simultaneously. Electors meeting in their respective states, in numbers equal to their states’ senators and representatives, would vote for two people for president. The electors’ winnowing of aspirants was the nomination process. When the votes were opened in the U.S. House of Representatives, the candidate with a majority would become president, the runner-up would become vice president. If no person achieved a majority of electoral votes, the House would pick from among the top five vote getters. Note well: The selection of presidential nominees was to be controlled by the Constitution.

The Founders’ intent, Ceaser writes, was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the “popular arts” of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders, Ceaser says, “were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction.” That deployment would invite demagoguery, which subverts moderation. “Brilliant appearances,” wrote John Jay in The Federalist Papers 64, “… sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” By telling members of the political class how not to get considered for the presidency, the Founders hoped to (in Ceaser’s words) “make virtue the ally of interest” and shape the behavior of that class.

Barack Obama completed the long march away from the Founders’ intent. Most recent presidential candidacies have been exercises of personal political entrepreneurship; his campaign, powered by the “popular art” of oratory, was the antithesis of the Founders’ system.

The Progressives of 100 years ago wanted to popularize presidential selection by rewarding candidates gifted in the popular art of inflaming excitement through oratory. They opened a door through which, eventually, strode George Wallace, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean and others.

Ceaser notes that the candidate whose path to the presidency most resembled Obama’s was Jimmy Carter. He, too, used an intensely personal and inspirational appeal to compensate for a thin résumé. Having courted the public with flattering rhetoric—promising “a government as good as the American people”—Carter came a cropper as president, partly because he was a one-man political startup. He had been selected by a process that rewarded running as a solitary savior, offering his personal qualities—his supposed moral excellence—as the key to national improvement.


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