Memo to the Next President

This is the third and final article in a series which has dealt with the fatal gap between the presidency and the Congress. Professor of political science at Williams College who served as combat historian in the Pacific during the war. JAMES MACGREGOR BURNShas been active in Massachusetts and national politics since his college days. He is the author ofROOSEVELT : THE LION AND THE FOX ; his new book,JOHN KENNEDY : A POLITICAL PROFILE,was published in January by Harcourt, Brace.


THE next President will win office this fall on a platform pledging hard leadership, leadership that will rally Americans during the early 1960s behind a rigorous program for national strength and survival. Such a program will embrace expanded public services, a more balanced military effort, increased aid to underdeveloped areas, educational equality and excellence, more realistic policies toward China, steady extension of desegregation and voting in the South, broadened medical, housing, and social security programs, urban improvement, modernized farm and labor policies, better development of water and other resources, more coordinated transportation policy, and, not least, the efficiency of the federal government.

This is a long and demanding list, but by no means a new one. Indeed, it is precisely because so many Americans in both parties agree on the contents of this list that we can expect the victor this fall to enter the White House with a heavier burden of specific commitments than any other President in history.

The 1960s will call for drastic political reforms and for an audacity not less than that which Truman exerted in his foreign policies of the 1940s. But the decade will call, too, for something more difficult — a steady flow of power to do the jobs that have been postponed during the 1950s. It is one thing to spearhead a bold new policy; it is something else, day after day and month after month, to marshal support all along the line behind a program designed essentially to do one crucial thing: to shift expenditures from nonessential private consumption to the public sector. This means stiff fiscal policies and hard political decisions; for example, asking Congress to tax more rather than less, and dealing with the tricky congressional system that requires first an authorizing bill and weeks later an appropriations bill in order to spend money. All this will call for leadership.

For the mandate of 1960 will not be a total one. Winning office with the new President will be a Congress that, no matter what the party ratio, will lean toward far more tepid and conservative policies than his own. Within a few months of the inauguration next January, the new President will face the inevitable chasm between White House and Capitol Hill, with most of his promises still to be redeemed. What then?

All Presidents, even Harding, have encountered this problem in one form or another. Some of them have seen their differences with Congress as simply a matter of poor communication; if only they could explain the problem to some balky committee chairman, they seem to have felt, the misunderstanding would disappear. So they have breakfasted with congressmen, held weekly meetings with Senate and House leaders, delivered speeches to joint sessions, sent up bulky recommendations and even drafts of bills. Rarely have such methods won over the President’s real opponents. For the real problem is that congressional leaders, whether conservative or liberal, hold office on different assumptions, different mandates, different expectations from the President’s.

Inevitably the strong Presidents have used the routine weapons of presidential power — patronage, deals, personal pressure, even the pardoning power — vigorously and even cynically. But the routine weapons have not been enough, and beleaguered Presidents have tried to mobilize popular support behind their programs, particularly when congressmen came up for re-election. From Andrew Johnson’s effort in 1866 to defend his reconstruction program against the Radicals to Eisenhower and Nixon’s attempt in 1958 to win back a Republican Congress, Presidents have made the long whistle-stop trips across the nation in order to force Congress into line.

Johnson failed, so did Eisenhower and Nixon, and so did virtually every President in between, most notably and tragically Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Even masterful Presidents who had pulled into office a Congress of their own party found their power at low ebb halfway through their terms. Almost every mid-term election has seen a diminution of the President’s strength on Capitol Hill at the hands of either or both of the congressional parties. The main exception was Franklin Roosevelt, who actually increased his congressional support in 1934. But the inexorable counterforce was only delayed; four years later, despite overwhelming Democratic margins in both chambers, Roosevelt was forced into the most desperate political venture in presidential history, an attempt to purge out of office the leaders of the congressional Democratic Party. And he too failed.

How will the next President tackle the problem that has perplexed and thwarted so many of his predecessors? That this question is already on the minds of at least two presidential candidates became clear in mid-January in a remarkable speech by Senator John F. Kennedy and in a swift rejoinder by Vice President Nixon. Kennedy’s statement is worth pondering. Not only did he assert that the President must exercise the fullest powers of his office, “all that are specified and some that are not,” but he called for forceful political leadership in the White House. “Legislative leadership is not possible without party leadership,” Kennedy said. “No President, it seems to me, can escape politics. He has not only been chosen by the nation — he has been chosen by his party. And if he insists that he is ‘President of all the people’ and should therefore offend none of them — if he blurs the issues and differences between the two parties — if he neglects the party machinery and avoids his party’s leadershipthen he has not only weakened the political party as an instrument of the democratic process — he has dealt a blow to the democratic process itself.” Two days later, Nixon took issue with Kennedy’s views. Too often people who clamored for more leadership were actually looking for someone to “lead the people to the mountaintop,” he said. Some Presidents achieved insults by table pounding, others worked more quietly by persuasion.

Perhaps Nixon could afford to take a less activist view of the presidency than Kennedy, for, if elected President this fall, he would probably have an easier time with Congress than would a Democratic chief executive. Such a prediction might seem paradoxical in view of the near-certainty that the Senate will be Democratic next year, and the House may stay Democratic too. But the paradox disappears if we remember that men like Nixon can easily work with men like Lyndon Johnson, because the parties they lead — the presidential Republicans and the congressional Democrats — are close to each other in ideology and program.

Nixon would not enjoy President Eisenhower’s personal popularity with most factions of Congress. But he would possess something perhaps as important — a knack for manipulation, for making deals, for exploiting to the full the President’s traditional powers of bargain and barter. No detached observer can underestimate that knack, matured in the Vice President’s eight years of brokerage operations between Capitol Hill and White House and dramatically displayed in his mediation of the steel strike. Indeed, the darkest failing that Democrats impute to Nixon — his ideological and policy flexibility — would be a positive advantage in his negotiations with congressional blocs and leaders. But even with Nixon, the question insistently arises as to whether traditional higgling and dickering with Congress would be enough.

But what if Nixon loses this fall? Then the victorious Democrats would face a new peril, for the Republican attack would be directed by Nelson Rockefeller. During the next four years, he would serve as both a nagging conscience and political threat to the Democrats. He could seize eagerly on any failure of a Democratic President to deliver on his pledges. As governor of New York, moreover. Rockefeller could offer a striking contrast to a divided, faltering, or paralyzed Democratic regime in Washington. New York’s political system is notably easy on its chief executive: the governor has ample constitutional power; the legislature, usually rather docile, quits the capital after a gratifyingly short session; and the state is wealthy enough to support a vigorous and progressive state administration. Nothing would sharpen the dilemma of the national Democratic Party so much as a liberal and smoothly operating Republican administration in Albany. How would the Democrats avoid such a dilemma?

Clearly, the only way to avoid it would be to put through the Democratic Party program, which would mean overcoming the inertia and opposition of the congressional party. How? The Democratic President who answers this question will not only immensely strengthen his chances for re-election in 1964; he will have succeeded, by a brilliant stroke of political creativity, in modernizing the American party system. For only such a stroke will produce the necessary support for his party and presidential program. The human materials for such political creativity will lie at the President’s hand if he has the wit and will to use them.

Those materials will consist of the millions of Americans who vote for him this fall and then have no place to go, politically, after the election. What if the new President, anticipating his need for popular and legislative support, consciously organized his supporters to provide active, continuing backing for his program? What if he consciously created a coherent, organized national party amid the sprawling, impotent political holding companies that make up each of our present major parties? In short, what if he converted his fleeting electoral majority of 1960 into a permanent, organized majority supporting, and to some extent controlling, the government?

The nub of the problem is, of course, Congress, and this is also the President’s great opportunity. Past Presidents, thwarted by the congressional parties, have tried to coax, bribe, or threaten their legislative opponents. They have not understood that what most congressmen need is not threats but political help. Many a senator or representative would take a national position instead of a parochial one if he could be assured of local support for that national position. Few congressmen on their own could organize such support, for that takes compelling national leadership, money, and organizational machinery. This is where the President comes in. He could, as party leader, mobilize support for a congressman, assuming that the President led a national party that was organized in the congressman’s district. In converting his personal following into organizational support for the congressman, he would unite the presidential and congressional parties behind his policies. Ultimately, if pursued systematically throughout the country, this strategy would create a new party, backing national candidates and somewhat removed from the medley of state and local candidate organizations that now dominate our party organizations.

SUCH a new party would be composed, in broad terms, of a rejuvenated national organization much more representative of the rank and file than the present national committees; of statewide parties representing the state membership and organized behind the party’s United States senators; of congressional parties supporting its representatives; and of local clubs. A new national council would meet at least annually to debate and decide party policy. Unlike the Democratic Advisory Council today, it would speak for the party in Congress as well as the Administration, and its statements of policy would be authoritative for the party. A smaller executive committee would meet more frequently, and the party’s national head would have far more scope and power than the national chairman has today. The party’s paid staff in Washington would be greatly expanded, and it would work closely with volunteers in the states and congressional districts. National party operations at the grass roots would become as professional and vigorous as those of effective labor unions.

The state and congressional units of the national party would have one central concern: electing senators and representatives who would support the party’s platform. To do this, the national parties would have to control the nomination of Senate and House candidates as thoroughly as they now control the nomination of presidential candidates at the national conventions. Our present state and local parties simply abdicate this function. And because of its power to grant or deny nominations, the party would be able to stand behind its promises to the people. Those members of Congress who ignored the platform would be denied renomination.

The new parties would become agencies for translating party platforms into national policy. Hence, the majority party would become a governing organization led by the President and the party’s congressional leaders. By the same token, the outs would become an agency for more effective and responsible opposition to the ins; more effective because they would speak for a united party, more responsible because they would deliver on the promises once they took office, or take the consequences. At last we would see an opposition worthy of this rugged role.

Even more important than the structure of the new party would be the spirit that informed it. First, it would be a membership party, with privates as well as sergeants and colonels. I do not mean a mass party; I mean a much more widely based party than we have today, organized locally in clubs composed of men and women concerned about national policies and leadership. Today our party committees, in contrast to the Legion and the League of Women Voters, for example, have no rank-and-file dues-paying membership. A substantial card-carrying membership would not only magnify the new party’s political power at the grass roots; it would also help solve such problems as the present dependence for money on a few angels.

Second, it would be a national party. Instead of trying to nationalize the present jumble of state and local committees — an impossible task a whole new party must be built. Hence, the new party would avoid the fatal drawback of most party reform proposals, which underestimate the extent to which existing party committees are organized around state and local politicians and therefore cannot be the material for nationally oriented parties. The problems that concerned the new parties would be national problems; hence its organization must be national. While maintaining amicable relations with existing local and state committees, it would avoid local party entanglements that might twist apart the national association.

Third, it would be a responsible party; responsible to its membership, to its program, to its historic tradition. This does not mean a meticulously democratic, representative organization; a party needs leadership and discipline to compete with the opposition, and its leaders must be free on occasion to move ahead of the rank and file. It does mean vigorous, informed participation by the rank and file in the party’s decisions. Everything would turn on the readiness of voters to take part in local party clubs as energetically as they do now in a host of other civic and fraternal organizations.

The cardinal object of the new national parties, then, would be to draw up a set of national policies, to present them to the voters at election time, and to marshal a steady flow of power behind those policies in Washington in order ultimately to push them through Congress.

To push these policies through Congress: this brings us to the heart of the problem, for the new national party as pictured above could not coexist for long with the present devices that support the congressional parties and nurture drift and deadlock on Capitol Hill. The seniority system, the filibuster power, archaic committee arrangements, all the encrusted layers of horseand-buggy government ought to go. There would be a new brand of congressional leadership, working closely with the President and truly representing the legislative rank and file.

Nor could the new party coexist with the present inequitable congressional districts. The gerrymander, which fosters one-party districts and artificially buttresses conservatism in Congress, would have to be legislated out of our national politics. The urban and suburban population of the nation would finally gain in Congress the representation that its numbers warrant, so that the popular majority that elected the President would have a far better chance of winning a majority, at least in the House of Representatives. Congress would at last control the process of electing its own members, a power that it now leaves in the hands of state legislatures.

IS THE coming of such a national party possible, even under the auspices of the strongest and most determined President? Many obstacles come to mind: for example, our aversion to political change and experimentation, our intractable sectionalism and localism, the checks and balances and division of powers that splinter our governmental system. Yet strong tides are running in the direction of a more centralized and responsible national politics. One is the confluence of various nationalizing forces shown in my article in the February Atlantic. Another is the conviction of millions of Americans that this decade will see a climactic struggle for national supremacy, if not survival — a conviction hardened by Soviet rivalry in every sector of international competition — and that our political system must therefore be strengthened to perform at peak effectiveness. Another is the fact that, for perhaps the first time in American history, a volunteer presidential campaign group, Citizens for Eisenhower, continued in being after the campaign. Finally, there is the rise of the political party dub movement, most notably in California and New York. These clubs, composed mainly of people who are interested in issues rather than jobs and who are thirsting for political leadership and national direction, could be sources of mass political backing for the national party.

These trends make national party reorganization possible if party leaders are willing to pay the price. For the Democrats, that price might be steep — a bolt by Democrats in the Solid South. There has been much loose talk about a Southern bolt in any event in 1960 — perhaps a walk from the national convention — though the Southerners will never quit the party en bloc as long as they hold so much congressional power by staying in. But a reform of congressional procedure would break the grip of conservative Southerners on the legislative machinery, and thus it would destroy their main reason for sticking with the party. In the long run, of course, the Democrats could create a new basis of power in the South, yet the short-term results of a Southern bolt could be painful.

The Republicans would have to pay a price too; like the British Tories, they would have to take their place as the party of steadfast, responsible, moderate conservatism. This might mean losing the services of such senators as Jacob Javits of New York and Clifford Case of New Jersey and others of the small band of Republican liberals. But in the long run the Republicans might more than make up for this loss by gaining the support of responsible conservatives in the Democratic Party. While a man like Harry Byrd of Virginia, ideologically a Taft Republican, will never desert his brand of democracy, the rising business and industrial class in the South will slowly strengthen Republicanism there. But only a party of responsible conservatism — that is, a party able to back up conservative promises, such as a balanced budget, with performance — deserves the support of the conservatives honest enough to desert a realigned Democratic Party.

The main obstacle to national parties through reorganization and realignment, however, will not be political but intellectual. For years both liberals and conservatives have preached the doctrine that our liberties are best protected under a decentralized and ambiguous party system, that party realignment would produce a doctrinaire party of the left and an extremist party of the right, with no place for the independent and moderate voters to go, and that party realignment might even cause a civil war. These arguments can be easily refuted: a weak party system can sap our national determination and strength and thus imperil all our liberties; a two-party system in a vast continental nation like ours cannot be anything but moderate and stable; and it was with our present decentralized and disorganized type of party, after all, that we did have a civil war. Still, most Americans would theoretically oppose a more clear-cut division of the parties along liberal and conservative lines.

It seems clear, then, that party reorganization and realignment will come about as a result not of academic speculation but of the felt necessities of practical politicians, especially the politicians in the White House. The initiative for a new party system must come from the top, but it will fail unless there is response among the people. It will be a case of the politicians’ being ahead of the theorists in recognizing the need for change.

Just how the new President might direct the building of national parties will depend on many circumstances. At a minimum he would have to put his campaign organization on a continuing basis, to help establish new party leadership at the state and district level, to devote a good deal of attention to party organizational matters, including finance, to mobilize his party’s rank-andfile senators and representatives behind new and representative party councils in Congress, to work closely with these councils in enacting legislation — in short, to act as the national leader of a truly national party.

Such a party will not, of course, emerge fullblown in the next Administration. Political change and reform is a tortuous business. It would probably come in piecemeal fashion, rising first in states like New York, California, and Michigan, where the potential for new parties is the greatest. It may be, too, that in the 1960s, as so often in the past, the President will deal with governmental inertia or paralysis by seizing and wielding emergency powers. But how practicable will emergency government be in the 1960s? Given the terrifying possibilities of deepening crisis in the years ahead, statesmanship for this decade will consist not of exploiting crisis but of averting it by mobilizing a steady supply of power to accomplish the scores of immediate tasks that may prevent extreme crisis from ever arising.

One thing is certain: no party reconstruction is possible unless it meets the political needs of the man in the White House. I have talked about the coming of a new party in terms of practical politics because it will be the President glimpsing and exploiting the underlying political tendencies of the nation who will put through his program, and in doing so will win a place for himself in history as a creative political leader. But the problem and possibilities are much bigger than one President’s ambitions and program. The man who modernizes our political system, the man who helps establish a majority party able to govern and a minority party able to oppose, will have put an end to the dangerous cycle of drift and deadlock in our national affairs. Hence he will have enabled Americans to regain control of their national politics and reassert their national purpose.