WASHINGTON — The Brits are everywhere in America these days – from the GEICO gecko's accent to BBC programming – so perhaps our English cousins can advise us on how to handle our first parliamentary-style presidential election.
Super Tuesday is a huge deal, to be sure, but the real action between now and November will be – uncharacteristically – in Congress.
Why? For one thing, the race between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama could well come down to the votes of the Democrats’ so-called “super delegates,” the biggest chunk of which (271) are members of the House and Senate.
More astonishing and profound is this: It is likely two members of Congress will be running against each other for president – the first time this has happened in the history of the United State. (According to my colleagues at the Newsweek Library, we’ve had many senators as nominees, but never two simultaneously, and no members of the House at all.)
Why does that matter? Because this time, the candidates will have to run from WITHIN Congress, not AWAY from it, as they almost always do after their nominating conventions.
This is how the Brits do it: Their prime minister is the head of his or her political party in the legislature. C-Span fans know they can watch the PM and his or her counterpart facing off against each other, popping up and down, briefing books in hand, as they go at each other.
Our founders wanted a separate executive to balance the power of the legislature and the courts. And our legislative chambers are shaped in arcs facing the chair, not with the parties facing each other like foes in a wainscoted, steel-cage death match.
But starting soon, Republican Sen. John McCain, the likely GOP standard bearer, and Obama and Clinton, are more like British Prime Ministers-in-waiting. How they handle those duties will prove whether or not they are ready for the top job.
They will have to assume direct control of their respective party’s legislative agendas. They will, in effect, become minority and majority leaders.
And there will be a sense of urgency, not just novelty, about their doing so. The country is near a recession and in the fifth year of an unpopular war. In addition, these three senators claim they can “reach across the aisle” to get things done – the reaching being a big appeal to independents.Rate candidates' positions
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Well, there’s gonna be a whole lot a reachin’ going on. Which could result in an era of good feelings on the Hill.
Or, more likely, there will be a lot of back-stabbing and point-scoring after the pro-forma reaching part is dispensed with.
And there will be plenty they will try to reach out about.
No matter what stimulus package Congress puts forward this winter – and there is no guarantee there will be one – the senators are sure to be drawn into transforming their campaign proposals into legislation.
McCain will be asked to prove his conservative bona fides by passing a bill to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. He will run into a Clinton-Obama buzz saw when he tries it.
The Democrats will be challenged by their promise to pass a bill to wind down the war in Iraq – and they won't be able to claim they're too busy on the campaign trail to lead the effort.
Internal diplomacy will be tricky as well. The congressional leaders didn't get their jobs by being wallflowers. They're always prickly. Now the close proximity of the campaign trail will make them even more so.
It’s going to be tough.
The Democrats hold the slimmest of working majorities in both chambers: 49 in the Senate (plus two independents who voted to organize with them), and only a 225-210 majority in the House. Can either Obama or Clinton weld them into the kind of force that will impress the nation?
Or to lead his party, can McCain overcome his reputation with many of his GOP Senate colleagues as a bad-tempered grandstander?
And if these senator/candidates can only be successful by getting big-time support from the other party, where does that leave the grassroots faithful?
Here’s betting that Ron Paul hears the call and spends the tens of millions he’s been hoarding. And then there is the indefatigable Ralph Nader.
The Brits would put them on Hyde Park Corner. We put them on the ballot.
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