Picking a President: Back to the Future?

Former President Donald Trump. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had a particular goal in mind while designing the presidential selection system over the summer of 1787: reinforce the office’s independence from Congress. By the end, they established an executive whose capacities and authorities were unprecedented for a republican government. 

Pierce Butler of South Carolina argued that his fellow delegates had been overly influenced by their opinions of George Washington’s virtue when designing such a robust presidency. Yet Butler overstated his case. A key feature of the debate during the convention was how best to encourage responsible behavior from a chief executive when in office—which, in turn, was predicated on not having another “George Washington” to select after George Washington became the first president.

Before the advent of party politics in 1800, the framers presumed that the Electoral College system would guarantee a president of national repute—that is, someone with sound character and a strong record. In 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could claim broad experience in the public arena. But, arguably, part of the reason Jefferson lost to Adams was the former’s less-than-spectacular tenure as Virginia’s governor during the Revolution. Jefferson also suffered for his reputation as, at best, an agnostic when it came to Christianity and a providential god. 

No doubt, the election in 2024 will largely turn on such policy issues as the state of the economy, the border crisis, and the progressive woke agenda. But the question of character and personal traits that so exercised the framers has resumed a central place in today’s presidential elections. Lest we forget, Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 was in no small measure the result of a goodly number of Republicans and independents rejecting Donald Trump despite otherwise supporting the GOP. 

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