03/19/2012 06:45 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Are Republicans Fielding a "Delegate" When America Wants a "Trustee?"

By Zachary Rosenfeld

With the GOP nomination contest limping toward its inevitable conclusion, voters (particularly those who consider themselves Independents) will need to start asking themselves an important question: Do they prefer their president to be a delegate or a trustee?

The "delegate vs. trustee" problem is one almost as old as democracy itself. If you are an elected representative, you are expected to faithfully represent the interests and opinions of the voters who put you into office. But you are also expected to represent the best interests of your entire constituency -- including the minority -- and to exercise independent judgment when addressing complex matters of statecraft.

What happens when these roles come into conflict? If you are a strongly pro-choice Republican representing a pro-life district, should you always vote pro-life in order to represent the majority opinion of your constituency (and your party) -- even when you disagree? Or should you go with the minority opinion and your own best judgment?

In U.S. politics, a "delegate" is a representative who channels, as best he can, the voices of the political majority. A delegate believes that he should never vote against "the people," even when he personally thinks that an alternative policy would be in their better interest. A "trustee," on the other hand, does the opposite. She believes that the voters elected her for her independent judgment and character, not for her ability to parrot popular opinion. In the example above, a delegate would vote pro-life while a trustee would vote pro-choice.

Whether the delegate model or the trustee model makes for better government has been the subject of ongoing debate. Conservative thinkers, who distrust direct democracy and fear the "tyranny of the majority," traditionally err toward empowering trustees. Populists, on the other hand, argue that the trustee model places too much power in the hands of distant and out-of-touch elites. Only delegates, they say, can truly represent the interests of the people.

When it comes to the presidency, though, it's usually a trustee who wins out. Americans don't like presidents who will only do what seems popular. We tend to want a leader who can dutifully represent the interests of all Americans while exercising independent, sober-minded judgment over the issues of the day.

But over the last few years something strange has happened: Somehow, both Democrats and Republicans have moved toward populist, pro-delegate platforms. Whenever President Obama has broken from progressive orthodoxies, left-wing Democrats have reacted with petulant despair, acting as if he has personally betrayed them and their values. Right-wing Republicans have systemically purged centrist voices from their party, frightening even independent-minded representatives into consistently voting the party line or stepping down. Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike no longer seem to believe that a trustee is capable of good governance.

So where has the pro-trustee faction gone?

Actually, not as far as you might think. Registered Independents are swelling in numbers across the country; if there's one group that can be counted on to vote for a "trustee president," it's them. And while the shrillest voices in both parties demand hyper-partisan delegates, the quieter majorities still yearn for a strong trustee. Why else would GOP insiders openly dream of Governors Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels entering the nomination race, like some sort of trustee messiah delivered unto the party to save it from its populist excesses?

The Republican presidential candidates have sold themselves as the ultimate delegates, but this is increasingly looking like a strategic mistake. Romney's flip-flopping on abortion, immigration, gun control and so on have brought him more into line with popular Republican opinion, but they have also made him look mercenary and unwilling (or worse, unable) to stand up for unpopular positions. Santorum appears to fancy himself a delegate for a higher authority, and his religious dogmatism worries voters who want a president capable of intellectual flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking. Gingrich is, well, Gingrich. The only candidate displaying the qualities of a trustee is Ron Paul, which may help explain his outsize support among more independent-minded conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan.

Pro-trustee voters are still looking for their "third way" candidate" -- a judicious, independent thinker unafraid to buck the popular opinions of his day. But the thing is, they already have one: President Obama. During his 2008 campaign Obama showed his willingness to take unpopular stands on issues like negotiating with Iran and single-payer health care. On issues as diverse as national defense and gay marriage he has repeatedly displayed his relative moderation, thoughtfulness, and capacity for evolving views. If one thing can be said about Obama, it's that he always thinks things through and then carefully selects the policies he deems most prudent, even when popular opinion goes the other way.

Perhaps the greatest irony of 2012's long primary is this: In their bickering over who is the most conservative, the Republican candidates have unwittingly modeled themselves as "delegate presidents" when most conservative-minded voters would prefer a "trustee president." President Obama remains the only viable trustee in the field -- making him, oddly, the best choice available for conservatives of the old school.

Which will America ultimately prefer in November -- a delegate or a trustee? The answer, I think, may not bode well for the GOP.

Zachary Rosenfeld is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Chair of the HKS Democrats Op-Ed Team. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.