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The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
A visitor from afar not habituated to our institutions might find it odd that the strongest government on earth, having elected a new national leader, must wait ten weeks before installing him in office, leaving the old chief bereft of political power and perhaps personally repudiated, but nevertheless fully responsible for the nation’s destiny in the interval. This year President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would have risked becoming a “lame duck” in the most classical sense had he sought re-election, took himself out of consideration early. His hope has been to increase his influence over events by putting himself above the campaign battle, freeing himself from fear of Election Day consequences, and eliminating suspicion of selfish political motives. It remains to be seen whether this lofty effort will be judged a success; but the complaints over his late Supreme Court appointments have already added to the generally contentious history of lame-duckery.
Among the many blessings the American people derive from our venerable constitutional arrangements, the lame-duck phenomenon stands out as a curious and possibly dangerous exception. By way of contrast, consider the British practice. If a parliamentary election changes the majority party in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister’s resignation is in the sovereign’s hands in a matter of hours, and within a week the leader of the new majority will be installed as Prime Minister and functioning with a cabinet of his own choice. A dramatic example occurred in 1946 during the Potsdam Conference. On July 25, Winston Churchill left the conference to go home for an election—which, to his surprise, the Tories lost. On July 28, Clement Attlee, leader of the new Labor majority, fully invested with authority, had already taken Churchill’s place at Potsdam. The parliamentary system is not guaranteed trouble-free, as the history of France and Italy attests, but when it is working in conjunction with a party and electoral system that produces a strong majority, it manages changes of governments with remarkable facility.
In the United States we wait until January 20 to carry out a decision that ordinarily is made by the voters in the first week of November. In years like this one, when the incumbent President is not running for re-election—whether by his own choice, rejection for renomination by his party, or constitutional limitation on the number of terms he can serve—the power vacuum in the White House usually appears several months before November. This recurring incapacity of the Presidency following (and sometimes before) an election has had results ranging from comic to tragic in the course of American history, and there lurks in it the possibility of genuine disaster.
Take, for example, the fateful drift toward war that occurred between November, 1860, and the inauguration of Lincoln in March, 1861 (the awkward interval was seventeen weeks in those clays). Whether Lincoln could have staved off the Civil War if he had been brought to power sooner is of course debatable; perhaps by that time the conflict was indeed irrepressible. But the futility of Buchanan during those weeks, while Lincoln rusticated inscrutably in Springfield, haunts the national memory.
Or consider the plight, seventy-two years later, of Herbert Hoover, repudiated at the polls in November, 1932, but serving out his time in the White House while economic paralysis swept over the country. Hoover struggled valiantly, according to his lights, but the country regarded him as a used-up man, and Congress, under Democratic leadership, scorned his efforts. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, invited by Hoover to join in an emergency effort, declined to become involved—at least on the terms of co-operation offered by Hoover. One shudders to think what might happen in 1968 should a crisis with the potentiality of blowing up the world occur between Election Day and the day of inauguration.
Our arrangements for presidential election and succession are largely a product of eighteenth-century political theory built into the original Constitution, plus early implementing legislation reflecting the conditions of political organization, transportation, and communication during the Federal period. The constitutional provisions for presidential elections were an early source of trouble, and we have patched at them intermittently ever since. We now have a hodgepodge—including original constitutional provisions, sonic of them archaic but others still vital and effective; early legislative decisions sanctified by 150 years of usage; crisscrossing amendments and statutes enacted as partial reforms; and myriad state laws, extralegal precedents, and party practices encrusted onto the system. Despite the troublesome characteristics of the scheme, it is built into our political system in so many ways that change is difficult.
The devotion of the framers to the principle of separation of powers led them to provide for a Chief Executive with a fixed term of four years—a system that strengthens the Presidency in some respects but provides no easy way of disposing of a President who is finished politically before his term is over. The framers sought further to make the President independent of Congress and to give him a political base in the country at large without going so far as direct national elections. Their solution was the cumbersome scheme of presidential electors, who are chosen and who vote for presidential candidates in the several states. It is left to Congress to tabulate and certify the result, break ties if necessary, and choose a President from among the top contenders if no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote.