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Radnor Geopolitical Report


Washington, January 2008

 

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Strategic geopolitical intelligence for decision-makers

 

 

 

 

About Radnor

Radnor is a legislative relations and political consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Radnor has affiliations across the world that allow us to accomplish our clients' objectives. We work with some of the largest businesses in the world as well as some of the smallest entrepreneurial firms and groups.

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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this any way to pick a president?

by Ken Feltman

You cannot find your soul with your mind. You must use your heart.

- Gary Zukav

Only 44 percent of the recipients of Radnor newsletters have what appear to be U.S. email addresses. The rest come from all over, with about a third from the European Union and an additional 8% from Russia (or parts of the former Soviet Union that are now independent). So it is no surprise that I receive questions from outside the United States about what is happening in presidential politics.

A product of several compromises, the system is confusing at best and crazy at worst. So it is also no surprise that I receive questions from the U.S. about what is happening. If Americans are befuddled by it, how can people outside the United States have any chance to understand? At the risk of being terribly, horribly, awfully wrong ? instead of just wrong ? I will try to answer your most frequent question. Before I do, let me note that this is the most publicized nominating process in U.S. history. Both parties have had their recent coalitions splinter a bit and are trying to put together new coalitions to reach an election-day majority. For observers, the process is made more difficult because the rules are different state-by-state and within each party. That confuses things. Believe it or not, the confusion is at least partly intended. That's right: Some of this mess is intentional.

Now, to that most frequent question: What the #+*#%+# exactly is going on?

Fear of King George

The best answer is that no one knows. But the current process has deep roots in the American colonists' fear of King George. The colonists feared the king's arbitrary power so much than Americans may never be rid of his influence in their political life. Americans prefer indirection in choosing their president. They do not like decisiveness and always seem to seek to delay ultimate decisions by creating a mechanism for one more review, one last step. Change is very difficult. Of course, selecting a new president is a huge change.

Other democracies have an election day and, barring a close vote that requires negotiation to put together a governing coalition, a new government is formed. Americans have a popular election in November of every fourth year ? and then have the Electoral College meet in December to ratify the decision of the voters. If the Electoral College cannot agree, the election will be decided by the House of Representatives (under arcane and partisan procedures in which each state gets one vote) unless the courts step in with a definitive ruling. Along the way, between November and January, Florida 2000 can happen.

When colonial leaders became state leaders, they searched for a way to draw the disparate states together under a central government. They failed in their first attempt because they created a toothless central government. We Americans live under their second attempt, in which they made sure no president or group could assume broad control by including in the Constitution many checks and balances on the power of each branch of government. For example, the small states got two senators, just like the big states. The big states got more representatives in Congress, where districts were based on population.

But the small states were still afraid of the power of the big states. So the rules and procedures of the Senate were designed to give any single senator the power to block a vote on any legislation, no matter how popular that legislation might be with the other senators and with the members of the House of Representatives. Many procedures are designed to slow things down and to require more review and deliberation.

Following the U.S. presidential polls?

Here are links to a compilation of polls collected by a popular website.

Democratic poll numbers

Republican poll numbers

With its checks and balances, the Constitution embodies the deep mistrust of central authority that many Americans still feel. Thus, we have an indirect presidential election and an Electoral College system that runs the risk of the occasional trauma of an inconclusive popular vote. The 2000 result forced the country to endure the pain of the Florida recount. Bush became president despite more popular votes going to Gore. It was not the first time the winner of the popular vote did not win in the Electoral College and become president. Other elections have been thrown into the House. Partisan politics prevailed. The 1824 election became known as the "corrupt bargain" because of the deal that sealed the result in the House. There were no riots in the streets in part because the system was seen by many Americans as a check, a way to resolve any doubts from the election, a way to have one last chance to decide who will occupy the White House.

Indirection as strategy

The same indirection is evident in the nominating processes. For example, the Democrats apportion the popular vote in primaries. Each candidate is awarded a number of delegates in proportion to his or her support in each state caucus or primary. Republicans permit states to give all their convention votes to the winner of the state's caucus or election, no matter how narrow that victory might be. Some states set the rules for who can vote in party primaries; others let the parties decide. Some allow any voter to participate in either party primary; other states require that you be a member of the party before you can participate in that party's primary. Maybe your grandmother should decide.

The system seems arbitrary, chaotic and dysfunctional. Two small states that vote early seem to have a larger voice in who makes it to the White House. But the eventual winner will have navigated a uniquely American version of trial by fire: Trial by deferral. The current system wears down the candidates and their supporters. It subjects the candidates to unrealistic schedules, lack of sleep and ever-present cameras recording every word and yawn. The current system puts a premium on a candidate's fundraising skills. It forces candidates to develop detailed issue position papers.

As election season proceeds, Ken Feltman's speaking calendar fills up quickly. If you want to schedule Ken for an appearance or a conference call briefing, please contact Adriane Cesa as soon as practical to avoid disappointment.

Email Adriane Cesa

Mostly, the current system defers the decision, state-by-state, as each passing caucus or election adds or subtracts a little confusion or clarity. That is the old American desire for indirection and ambiguity. The system is either (1) so irrational or (2) so structured that only the committed and interested pay enough attention to affect the outcome. Thus, the process narrows the decision to a self-selected minority before turning the final November election loose on the whole country.

Knowing in their hearts

Americans do not want vote totals alone to decide who becomes president. They want to feel which candidate is best. They want to know in their hearts. Americans do not really pick a president. They put the candidates through a grueling trial that forces the weaker candidates to drop out. Or drop hopelessly behind. Then, satisfied that the strongest are still standing, the voters in each party reach a media-assisted consensus.

So far, the Democrats have reached consensus on Obama and Clinton as their finalists. Now, the trial continues for those two ground-breaking candidates. The Republicans have decided that they are not ready to decide. Three key states have produced three different winners.

They wonder if the resurrected McCain can go the distance. To test him, they have made him the frontrunner. McCain is in the catbird seat (an enviable position of advantage). Now, voters will test his ability to stand up to the grind, to the same kind of withering criticism and second-guessing that killed him off in 2000. He seems better prepared to face the attacks this time. But the Republicans will find out. They want to feel it. That is important information for voters when the candidate is in his seventies and has faded under pressure once before.

People outside the U.S. may want to look at the primaries not as elections to be won or lost but as the equivalent of football "friendlies" ? opportunities to test the candidates as they tune up. Americans use the early caucus and primary states to learn how the candidates perform under the most trying circumstances. Somehow, out of the chaos and confusion, people across the country either agree with the decisions made by the early states or reject them and try to choose someone else. But for sure, the voters everywhere learn from the different ways the candidates handle the pressures of the early states.

A year from now, after two years of trial and pain, a new president will be inaugurated. Then another trial begins as the new president tries to govern. That, too, tends to be painful as the president gets the feel of the job.



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