Commentary

Hillary Clinton vs. James Madison

However the election turns out, proponents of pure democracy will call for the abolition of the Electoral College. Washington’s newest celebrity, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the latest convert to this cause.

Some will say Ms. Clinton opposes the Electoral College only because Al Gore might lose the presidency despite getting a plurality of the popular vote. I give Ms. Clinton more credit than that. Her opposition to the Electoral College is entirely in step with her underlying philosophy of government: centralizing liberalism. But that philosophy contravenes the spirit of our Constitution as expressed by its primary author, James Madison. We should stick with Madison’s idea of a federal republic and preserve the Electoral College.

Since the New Deal, the Democrats have favored centralizing power in Washington. They believe in a large and active national government run by experts who engineer prosperity and social reform. For these liberals, the powers remaining with the states were at best a hangover from an earlier, less-enlightened era, and at worst a positive hindrance to “progress.” Since 1932, Democrats have welcomed the slow evisceration of the states and the aggrandizement of Washington.

You can’t find a better example of centralizing liberalism at work than Ms. Clinton’s health care debacle. She gathered a group of experts who met in secret and concocted a complex plan to consolidate American health care under Washington’s control. The public decisively rejected that grab for power, but say this for Ms. Clinton: Her health care effort, like her call to abolish the Electoral College, flows seamlessly from her philosophy of centralizing liberalism.

This nationalizing impulse differs sharply from the Founders’ vision. The Founders knew that legitimate government depended on the public’s will. James Madison called the Constitution “our complex system of polity,” which includes several conceptions of the public will. In some cases, like the House of Representatives, the public will can be measured by direct popular vote. In others, the public will equals “the will of the States in their distinct and independent capacities.” What’s clear is that the public will is far more than simple majority rule.

What about the Electoral College? Madison thought it embodied the “federal will” of the nation. By that he meant that the Electoral College included both the will of the nation as expressed in the popular vote and the will of the states in a federal system (every state large or small gets two electors). As Madison knew, this amalgamation gave small and medium-sized states more leverage in presidential elections than they would have in a popular vote. He found that fair given the influence of large states in other areas.

In our own time, we can see other advantages of the Electoral College. Under direct popular election of the president, the Democratic candidate would probably seek large majorities in major metropolitan areas on both coasts, ignoring the smaller states in between. The alienation of “Middle America” would increase. In contrast, the Electoral College forces all candidates to seek support throughout the nation. Thus our last election found Al Gore in Florida and George W. Bush in Michigan and Oregon. In this way, the Electoral College contributes to the unity of our fractious nation.

Madison’s point about federalism is also well taken. The Founders feared the arbitrary exercise of political power, and they hoped strong states would limit an expansive central government. If we abolish the Electoral College, we will make it harder for the states to provide this essential defense of liberty. And we will do so just as bold policy successes in the states have shown the value of these “laboratories of democracy.”

The 2000 election is sparking a great constitutional debate. On one side are those like Ms. Clinton who wish to abolish the Electoral College and further centralize power in Washington. On the other are those who urge fidelity to Madison and his constitutional vision of a complex, federal republic. It’s a debate Madison should win.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.