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The Brits Know How to Have an Election

downingYou Want Change…

Put me down as an Anglophile. London is a great city. Winston Churchill was, and I know I’ll get an argument, the indispensable man of the 20th Century. Theater, music, literature, quirky humor, lukewarm beer, whiskey from Scotland – I really like the mother country.

The British have their challenges, needless to say, but the recent election there is a reminder of how much Great Britain has to teach us about conducting a spirited and quick national election, making a decisive change in leadership – again quickly – and doing it all with a fair amount of style and class.

Gordon Brown, the just ousted prime minister, will never be confused for Churchill, but it was hard not to admire the way he left Downing Street yesterday in route to hand his resignation to the Queen. Stiff upper lip and all that.

At the same time, David Cameron, the 43-year-old leader of the Conservatives immediately became the youngest prime minister in 200 years. You win an election in Great Britain and poof – you move in at No. 10. You wonder if they had time to change the sheets.

You must also admire the speed and decisiveness with which Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg closed a deal to forge the first genuine coalition government in Britain since World War II. Clegg will be the deputy prime minister and several of his Lib Dem colleagues will get spots in the Cabinet, Britain gets a fresh start with two attractive younger leaders and it all happened in a matter of days.

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted, the British system worked beautiful and now the Tories confront the nation’s economic troubles in full partnership with the left of center Liberal Democrats. Each party has a stake in working on the details and fixing the economy. It may not work in the end, but some how all the players seem to have been trying to find the best path for the country once the voters had spoken, and not very decisively at that.

I’ve had a running debate with my much better half for years over the relative merits of the British and American systems. As our politics have become ever more polarized – can you imagine Barack Obama and John McCain negotiating a power-sharing arrangement – and voters feeling like Washington is less and less accountable, I find the parliamentary system to have more and more appeal. Key members of the ruling party in Britain actually run departments of government. They must propose and defend their own budgets and plans. They must stand weekly for questions from the opposition.

Its not any fun to lose an election in Britain, I know, but its not often an occasion for prolonged transitions and public agonizing. Tradition demands a certain pace and, after all, the Queen is waiting.

What would our system be like, in a variation on the Brits’ approach, if the president drew his cabinet from the leading members of his party in the Congress? Hillary Clinton could still be in the Senate and Secretary of State. Ken Salazar could run Interior and still be the Senator from Colorado. How about Barney Frank running the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission? OK, maybe not. But, you get the point. Separation of powers problems aside, with a hybrid American-British system we’d have more accountability and if the president lost a key vote in Congress – bam – national election. It wouldn’t hurt us to shorten up our transition, either. In the modern age, from election day to January 20th is an eternity. The British do it better.

I know, as my better half says, what are you thinking, or smoking? Still the British, with all their problems and challenges, have something to teach us about four-week long campaigns, the ability to quickly and effectively form coalition governments and a chance to provide real change and accountability for those running the government.

After all, it’s not like we have the perfect system. We could learn some things. Might do us good.

Second Acts

brownBeen There, Done That

You have to wonder why Jerry Brown would want the job. California, among the biggest economies in the world, is flat broke; $20 billion – with a B – in debt. The state has spent the last few years dismantling a world-class higher education system and the politics in Sacramento are nearly as toxic as Washington, D.C. Still, Brown is one of five former governors – Maryland’s Bob Ehrlich is the latest – who are seeking to get their old jobs back.

The Oregonian’s political reporter Jeff Mapes had a piece yesterday on the phenomenon – he was nice enough to call and visit about my experience – of just what it is about the governorship that appeals to people who have been there, done that.

The king of the northwest comeback, Cecil Andrus, has always said being governor is the best political job in the world. Andrus is the only Idahoan to be elected four times and in three decades – the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

If one wants to work hard, push an agenda, be totally accountable, and available to the press and the public 24/7, then being governor is the best job around. But like most high quality jobs, being the chief of a state also involves serious heavy lifting and major responsibility. A United States senator is always one of a committee. He can hide behind a staff and only faces the voters every six years. A Congressman is part of a circus with 434 other, er, performers. Unless you reach a serious leadership position, the job is often conducted in relative anonymity. Not so a governor.

The job is about power when all is said and done. You can appoint people. In Idaho a governor appoints county commissioners when a vacancy occurs, they also appoint judges, department heads and hundreds of members of boards and commissions. In good times and bad, they run the budget and call out the National Guard. CQ’s Bob Berenson points out that governors elected this year will have a lot to say about reapportionment. And as for Governor Moonbeam; Jerry Brown sounds genuine when he says California’s mess is his opportunity.

What he doesn’t say is how difficult any second act can be. Comebacks are harder than they look. The successful Andrus second go round, for example, followed an extremely close election. In Oregon, John Kitzhaber’s comeback has drawn primary foes and memories of his comments when he went out the door the first time. Brown’s sometimes quirky previous tenure is sure to be sliced and diced on TV and everywhere else in California before November.

Still, given all the complication inherent in a comeback, it must seem worth it to those willing to put themselves through the process knowing full well what is really involved.

It has been said – the quote is attributed to Jay Leno – “that politics is just show business for ugly people.” Using that analogy then, there is always the possibility of another big role, even for the star who seems to have faded into the twilight. At least five “formers” are getting ready for another close up.