One of the central questions raised by comparative constitutional law is whether the American constitutional system is somehow different, or even exceptional, when compared to the systems of other countries. As Stephen Gardbaum has written, “even within the common framework of . . . modern constitutional fundamentals, there is still a pervasive sense that the United States remains broadly exceptional or different.” Whatever the veracity of this conventional wisdom as applied to the rest of the American system, it is undeniably true that the events dominating the United States since the election of Barack Obama on November 4—the events related to the presidential transition—are a uniquely American drama.
The phenomenon of the transition between elected governments—a time where one political leader or party has already been elected but has not yet taken official power—is not unknown to the rest of the world, and seems specifically contemplated by the constitutions of other countries. What makes the American system unique, then, is not the existence of the transition period, but its significance. In the major constitutional regimes elsewhere, political parties more clearly identify their policy leaders even when not in power, and thus have a much smaller number of personnel decisions to make when transitioning to power. By contrast, American political parties do not clearly identify who their policy leaders are when they do not occupy the White House. Because of that, and because American Presidents have such a large number of political appointments to make, the transition period becomes a crucial moment for the new American President to coronate a select few political figures as the current and future political and policy leaders within his Administration, and therefore within his party. The contrast leads to a simple, but significant, difference: While political parties in other countries define their policy leaders permanently, American parties define their policy leaders in substantial part through a singular moment of high drama—the presidential transition.