He's a doctor, a lawyer, a university professor and a one-time politician (in the Indiana House). With all that education and real-life experience, it might be surprising that David Orentlicher would propose such an unlikely — some would say ridiculous — solution to end partisan gridlock in Washington: He wants to double the number of presidents. In his book, “Two Presidents Are Better Than One,” he argues that the winner-take-all president has way more power than intended by the founding fathers and that's the main reason for intense and growing toxic partisanship in the capital.
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But, what if there were power sharing between co-presidents, each from a different party? They'd have to compromise to get anything done, he argues. Although it sounds bizarre, Orentlicher, who teaches law at Indiana University, makes a reasoned argument for 50-50 power-sharing.
He concludes, "Two heads really are better than one."
Printers Row Journal spoke with Orentlicher recently. Here's an edited version of the conversation.
Q: Make sure I understand your proposed process: Every state has a primary, Democratic and Republican. Ultimately there will be a Republican presidential nominee, a Democratic presidential nominee and perhaps, as you point out, it's more likely a third-party nominee? And the top two vote getters win?
Q: You also want to wipe out the Electoral College. Good luck with that.
A: What leads to major change is when things break down. So, if it keeps getting worse, then I think more and more people will say, "We really need to change our system. This is just intolerable."
Another reason I try to be optimistic about this: Who's going to drive this decision making? The parties will. The media will. But also the people who fund campaigns who are spending the hundreds of millions of dollars. From a large corporation's perspective, we hear all the time they care about predictability and stability. So, if they know there will be bipartisan governing, that should be attractive to the corporate world. So if they pursue their self interest they're very influential. It doesn't necessarily have to come from the bottom up, grass roots. It could come from the powers that be.
Q: Money talks?
Q: When I first heard your scenario — two presidents and their families living in the White House, two presidents requiring two Oval Offices — it made me think of a French farce.
A: People say, "How can they agree? They just bring their fighting into the White House." (But) the desire for power and to leave a legacy is much more important than whatever their core principles are.
Maybe this is because I served in the legislature and worked with people. I saw that you just can't take their statements at face value. They're far more flexible than they let on.
Q: I would never underestimate a politician's desire to acquire power, even if instead of 50-50 it's 50.01 percent. You disagree?
A: The fact they have to deal with each other, make many decisions together over a definite time period — when you have those kinds of relationships, people do cooperate.
Q: Your dual presidency suggestion is premised on the notion that the single presidency is the reason there is so little bipartisanship in Washington. But there's just a ton of squabbling in both the Senate and the House. I'm failing to understand why that all originates with the single presidency.
A: So much of what goes on in Congress is driven by the Big Prize. So if they don't have the presidency to fight over any more it becomes less about power. Now why won't they just fight over control of Congress? They will. You can't eliminate all partisan competition. The question is how much of it is about winning and beating the other side? How much of it is about legislative accomplishments, getting things done.
Q: And what is your answer?
A: Right now it's so much about winning partisan victories rather than getting things done. I don't anticipate getting rid of all the partisan conflict, but if we can tamp it down so people are less absorbed by that.
If you now have a bipartisan presidency, in the most important power center everybody feels like they've got a voice.
Q: I gather you think that your plan for two presidents is DOA. Is that true?
A: No, I'm optimistic. It would be a big change in a lot of people's minds, so it's not going to happen tomorrow or next week. I view this as a long-term project.
Q: How old are you?
Q: Do you think you'll see it in your lifetime?
A: I think it could happen. It depends how bad things get.
Q: It's not bad enough yet?
A: I think it is. That's part of why I wrote the book. It's not novel to recognize partisan gridlock, but the usual proposals to fix the problem are just not solving things. It's just going to continue to get worse.
Q: You go out of your way to say, "OK, maybe this thing isn't going to happen but this proposal will get the conversation started.
A: If there's a reform of the presidency, that will get us halfway there; half a loaf is better than none.
Q: What would be half a loaf in that scenario? It seems like half a loaf is one president.
A: What I hope is that people think, "OK, how can we make the presidency work best? OK, we don't like David Orentlicher's two-person presidency (although I still do). You're right; we need to fix the presidency." Get them thinking. And by having people think hard in the right direction about the problem, then other alternatives will spring up and eventually we'll get something that is both effective and feasible. You look overseas and you see shared power. It may seem unusual for the United States, but it's surely not unusual worldwide.
If the fear of a two-person presidency is they won't get anything done, well, we're already at that point. It's not like we're going to make things measurably worse than they are now and it actually might make them a lot better. So it's kind of a low-risk experiment.
Q: One of the points you make in the book: This is going to require an amendment to the Constitution. Give it a try, and if it's a flop, we'll amend the Constitution back to the way it was.
A: We did it with Prohibition. I suspect the more realistic route would be to try it out in one or two states. I think that makes more sense. Do it at the state level (with two governors) first, because if it doesn't work well, it's only one state. It's not like the damage is going to be tremendous.
Q: If there were a dual presidency, you suggest a dual vice presidency is necessary. I would suggest we already pretty much don't need a vice president. Why should we have two of them?
A: You're right. Do we really need two? But if either one were disabled or died, we'd need to have the vice president ready to step in because you wouldn't want to have the Republican vice president stepping in for the Democratic president. Then you'd have two Republicans in the White House. So it's to make sure we have a partisan balance. You'd have to have two vice presidents.
Q: Then why not have two Secretaries of Defense and two of each cabinet post?
A: That I'm not in favor of. If the cabinet were independent decision-makers, absolutely. But, in the end it's the president that calls the shots, so there's no need to have the balance at the cabinet level because they just let the decisions flow up to the Oval Office. That's where you need the balance — where the decisions are made.
Q: Your dual presidents won't be extremists?
A: In the end, I don't think it really matters because whether they're extreme or moderate they still have to come to an agreement. They're still going to come to the middle from wherever they start.
Q: So the worse the gridlock gets in this country, the better it is for your proposal?
A: (laughs) It does create perverse incentives. Obviously, I want things to get better. Who wants to have a broken Washington? But you're right. If Washington isn't broken, there's less need for reform.
Tribune Senior Correspondent Ellen Warren is a former White House correspondent who has covered seven presidential campaigns.
"Two Presidents are Better Than One"
By David Orentlicher, New York University Press, 304 pages, $29.95