The months leading up to an American presidential election are always a testy time. If times are even testier than usual, it is undoubtedly because the government itself is divided, with a Republican finishing a first term in the White House and the Democrats in control of Capitol Hill. The Senate is aswarm with presidential and vice presidential hopefuls, all trying to make partisan points at the expense of the Administration. Richard M. Nixon has lobbied for passage of the Administration's program, cajoling conservative Republicans to stay in line and seeking whatever support he can find on the Democratic side of the aisle. But despite cooperation from the Democratic leadership on some issues, the output of Congress is dwindling as Election Day draws closer and partisan considerations dominate.
The Republicans feel they deserve to be re-elected. They were called back into power three years ago by a public impatient to wind up a nasty war in Asia which the Democrats seemed incapable of ending. By and large, the Republicans have done what it was hoped they would do, although there is still a sizable American army in the field and no formal peace treaty is in sight. The war news is off the front page, they note, and mercifully, so is the constant agitation from and about the radical groups who want to turn the country upside down.
The problem is that the war's effects linger. The inflation which the Republicans inherited, though somewhat abated, remains a major preoccupation of Administration economists and average citizens. And the cutback in defense spending has slowed the economy and brought higher unemployment than anyone finds satisfactory. The Democrats argue that these are not problems of transition, as the President maintains, but the results of typical Republican mismanagement of the economy. This case was persuasive enough for them to win the midterm election, despite the President's and Vice President's all-out effort to elect a Republican Congress.
In the coming election, Republicans will run on the slogan of "Peace and Prosperity"—if they can reduce the unemployment figure and bring inflation under control; and if the protracted disarmament talks with the Russians do not end in disagreement; and if the tense Middle East does not explode into war; and if the India-Pakistan situation can be contained.
The latest Supreme Court decision on school desegregation is causing the Republicans some problems and jeopardizing their prospects for further political gains in the South. Despite the President's evident coolness to the ruling, his critics do not let him forget that the decision was written by the Republican whom he appointed as Chief Justice.
Richard Nixon is working as doggedly as ever, trying to keep one step ahead of his problems. Busy as he is with the duties of his office, he manages to take an active hand in Republican Party politics. He has to, for there are threats on every side. In addition to the Senate Democrats, who rarely miss a chance to denounce him, there are restive conservatives in his own party, unhappy about the course of the Administration; a Republican governor in his home state of California whose ambitions must be placated; and a millionaire governor in New York who, instead of resting on the laurels of a long and distinguished career, seems always to be seeking new worlds to conquer.
Since the last presidential race, the Democrats have made a strong comeback in the state capitals. They now control Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states important to Nixon's re-election. But there is a friendly Republican governor in Illinois to help offset some of Mayor Daley's power. And there are high-level intrigues in Texas, whose top Democrat could not be more helpful to the President if he were a member of the GOP.
All things considered, Richard Nixon feels he can look forward with some confidence to 1956.
That's right—1956. This is history, not current events. Every item just referred to is sixteen years out of date, even if it seems to apply to the autumn of 1971. The President referred to is Dwight D. Eisenhower, not Richard Nixon. The war is in Korea, not Vietnam. The Republican Chief Justice is Earl Warren, not Warren Burger. The school decision that is causing the controversy is the original 1954 ruling that "separate is not equal," not the more recent call for widespread busing to end segregation.
The California governor whose ego needs constant attention is Goodwin J. Knight, not Ronald Reagan. The ambitious millionaire in Albany is Averell Harriman, not Nelson A. Rockefeller. The Administration's Texas friend is Allan Shivers, not John B. Connally. And the Senate Democratic hopefuls are named Kefauver and Gore and Kennedy and Johnson, not Muskie, McGovern, Jackson, and Humphrey.
But if this short catalogue of the similarities of 1955 and 1971 produces a sensation of deja vu, an impression that we are watching a rerun of a not-very-good movie, then you understand what provokes this article. American politics is at an impasse: we have been spinning our wheels for a long, long time, and we are going to dig ourselves ever deeper into trouble unless we find a way to develop some political traction and move again. We can get that traction, we can make government responsible and responsive again, only when we begin to use the political parties as they are meant to be used.
Many of the shortcomings in the American political system today were foreseen by a group of scholars twenty years ago. In its 1951 report, "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System," the committee on political parties of the American Political Science Association said that there were four dangers to our democracy which "warrant special emphasis," dangers which they prophesied would become more acute unless the forces weakening our party system were combated.
"The first danger," the report said, "is that the inadequacy of the party system in sustaining well-considered programs and providing broad public support for them may lead to grave consequences in an explosive era."
The weakness of our party system has made it very difficult to build and maintain support for the long-term enterprises we need to pursue at home and abroad. The task of supporting international economic development, of constructing a stable world peace, of building a strong domestic economy and equitably distributing its products and wealth, of reforming our governmental structures and finding adequate resources for our urgent national needs cannot be accomplished by a single Congress or a single President. We have paid a high price for the instability and weakness of our governing coalitions. Ambitious programs have been launched, but funds to finance them withheld. Commitments made by a Congress have been vetoed or impounded by a President. No party has been able to move ahead on its own agenda for very long, and the result has been years of government by fits and starts, with a mounting backlog of unkept promises and unmet needs.
"The second danger," the APSA committee said, "is that the American people may go too far for the safety of constitutional government in compensating for this inadequacy by shifting excessive responsibility to the President."
We have seen that happen, too. The weakness and frustration of responsible party government at the state and local level—which are, if anything, even more serious than at the national level—have sent most of our major issues to Washington for resolution. And in Washington, power has increasingly been stripped from Congress and the departments and been centralized in the White House. Bereft of the sustained support that a responsible party system could provide for passage and implementation of a long-term program, each of the last four Presidents has been forced to improvise his governmental policies and tactics on a day-to-day basis, hoping that some temporary alliance would permit him to overcome the inherent immobility of the vast governmental system. As the APSA committee predicted, this situation has produced the type of ''president who exploits skillfully the arts of demagoguery, who uses the whole country as his political backyard, and who does not mind turning into the embodiment of personal government." But even the highly personalized presidency of our era has not managed to cope successfully with the problems challenging America.