Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton Agonistes: Making a Majority

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton Agonistes: Making a Majority

Article excerpt

THE genius of the American political system lies in how it anticipates tendencies of human nature - particularly the impulse to test a leader. It has not the simple majoritarian rule of direct democracy. With three branches of government, none has a majority lead. Executive authority devolves not from the legislature as in parliamentary systems; and the judicial branch, nominated by one branch and confirmed by the other, referees the evolving rules of the game.

The American democracy is a tough league to win in, as President Clinton is learning in getting a budget compromise out of Congress. So far, he is succeeding in the House.

Clinton has plenty of adversity. His approval rating is on the wane. A suicide among his top legal aides has shaken a White House already dispirited by a series of botched initiatives. Republicans in both chambers, and Senate Democrats, withhold support. And scandal nips at the heels of a key House chairman.

Sweet adversity. A leader can rejoice in it.

To govern, a leader must have the majority of force going his way; otherwise things either stay put or veer off his course. A 51 percent majority can be cause for gratitude but it can overly involve a leader in the defense of his margin. Three-fifths majorities would put a leader within range of the two-thirds reserved for major veto-test issues.

Now, a leader may take up an assignment with at best, say, a 10 percent or so personal majority; few people may want him or her to succeed because he's Bill or she's Hillary. Popularity, we have known since junior high school, is overrated. The leader has to assemble the rest of what he needs from other resources.

These resources can include the goodwill of those who want to see the institution progress. The calendar presents new occasions for getting things done; failure to act within the time allotted can be shown to reflect as poorly on the opposition as on the leader himself. Reason, argument, and communication (going directly to the public) can strengthen the leader's hand.

The design of the institution itself may be inclined toward progress - or altered to do so. …

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