BURNS & DUNN DISCUSS THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
From OnCampus, June 2008
By Mark E. Rondeau
For those who find our protracted presidential season depresssing, take heart: political harmony may seem great as an abstract notion, but the true essence of democracy is conflict — non-violent political conflict.
This idea is a major reference point for presidential historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. In considering the 2008 presidential race, Dunn recently observed that “It may be comforting to believe that consensus and unity are somehow healthier; more noble and less disruptive than sharp partisan battles. But it is the rough and tumble game of adversarial politics that preserves our democracy.
“Republicans and Democrats do not and should not agree. Different and competing visions of the public good are the lifeblood of a dynamic and open democracy. They strengthen our democracy, engage citizens in meaningful political debate, and keep us awake.”
Burns is a professor of political science emeritus; Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams. They are co-authors of “The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America” and “George Washington.” Burns won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for history for his ground-breaking biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Burns and Dunn are forthright about being liberal Democrats and supporters of Hillary Clinton. Still, they had good things to say about all three candidates.
Not surprisingly, both take a skeptical view of what Dunn, in a Washington Post op-ed piece, called Barack Obama’s “ardent, heartfelt promise to bring Americans together and turn the nation’s capital into a place of bipartisan harmony.” Yet they admire his eloquence and ability to get young voters excited about politics.
Burns said that regardless of whoever eventually wins the Democratic primary, this will be remembered as a glorious year for the party, since it will offer either an African American or a woman as its presidential candidate.
“We do think it’s time for a woman candidate. But, as I recently said to a group of local Democrats, I want both. I’m greedy,” he said. “Here we have two wonderful candidates, but there has to be a particular sequence. We could have Hillary for two terms and Obama for two terms, but you can’t do it the other way around.”
As the Republican nominee, McCain is a man of great appeal, who could be effective on foreign policy, Burns said. “His war record, for me, it’s always been very decisive, because I’m a veteran, too. So I think veterans admire him.”
Being a little bit to the left of the Republican Party would help McCain pick up a lot of independent support: “So I think he’s a very strong candidate and has a good chance of winning,” he said.
“I think the election probably will turn to a great extent on domestic policy,” Burns said. “If McCain’s running against Hillary, who is, if nothing else, incredibly knowledgeable about domestic policy, I think he would find himself in a lot of difficulty.”
Dunn said she wasn’t sure how McCain would govern the nation as president. As for the skills an effective president needs, while being an effective communicator is important, what he or she has to communicate is much more important.
“There’s such a difference between oratory and the actual grinding, day after day, working out of policies,” Burns said. “I don’t think we’re all that optimistic that the Democrats — or either party, for that matter — can carry out its campaign promises.”
In talking about presidential leadership, Burns and Dunn speak most highly of transformational leaders, those leaders who change the playing field, so to speak, as FDR did with the New Deal. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, consists of compromise and consensus-building — “horse-trading” in a phrase. Effective presidents need to be good at both types of leadership.
“But ultimately what we look for, and what we tell our students is that the highest form of leadership is transformational leadership, because it ushers in not only lasting change that was intended — intended and lasting and enduring change — but it also empowers followers and changes their lives,” Dunn said. “It makes them into better citizens, it brings them to a higher moral purpose in life, too.
“But that’s rare, that kind of leadership, transformational leadership. One can point to very few transformational leaders.”
Standing in the way of transformational leadership today is gridlock, a byproduct of our governmental structure as well as of a very polarized political climate. Watching presidential candidates in both parties making promises, Burns thinks back to how hard it has been for presidents since the end of World War II to accomplish their agenda.
“We can get occasional bills through,” he said. “But to get through a program and to do all the things that are being promised, even with good leadership the obstacles in our system of checks and balances makes it so difficult to get stuff done.”
Dunn, too, spoke of gridlock, noting how Theodore Roosevelt called for universal health care in 1906 and that a century later we still don’t have it.
Another possible obstacle to transformational leadership is the Supreme Court, on which Burns is working for a new book. FDR, for instance, had to deal with a conservative court that declared a number of his New Deal policies unconstitutional, and a new Democratic president will have to deal with today’s conservative court.
“Jim and I both prefer English parlimentary democracy, in which you have a majority party that is not checked by any other branches of government,” Dunn said. “It can put in, whether universal health care or whatever’s on that government’s agenda.”
One possible re-structuring would have the president and all members of Congress — representatives and senators — elected to four year terms at the same time. “And then, most likely, in national and local elections, you would get some sort of united ideological team coming in,” Dunn said, a team “motivated to enact a truly transformational agenda, and with the power to enact that agenda.”
Still, as they acknowledged, such a structural change is unlikely any time soon. So what what advice would they have for the next president in dealing within the political structure and situation we have?
“As we talked about, there are so many obstacles to getting things done. The main thing is to take a very strong line, as FDR did, to rise above all the little altercations and pressure groups and just push and push and push that line, which often in the past has worked,” Burns said. “Put forth something to be a transformational leader from the very start, even though you know you’re going to have to do a lot of transactional leadership to make the transformational leadership work.”