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Morning Jay: Let's Go Back to the Old Nomination System

6:00 AM, Dec 21, 2011 • By JAY COST
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With last week’s GOP presidential debate, we have virtually come to the end of the pre-primary season--that 12-month process of posturing and policticking between the various candidates leading up to the first contests in January. This cycle’s experience has been a sour one for me, as I have come to the conclusion that our nomination system is broken and in desperate need of reforms.


To encourage discussion on this front, today’s column reworks a presentation I gave to the students at Berry College earlier this month, in a debate sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The resolution in question was whether the current system should be scrapped in favor of the old (convention-style) process. I adopted the affirmative position and Sean Trende, of RealClearPolitics, took the negative.


To begin, I’d like to talk a bit about how my own feelings on this issue evolved over time. I readily acknowledge that the old nomination system has a bad reputation – the “smoke filled rooms” as they were called. And I used to think that myself. In fact, if you look back at my writing in 2007, you’ll see that I was in favor of the current nomination system.

But the more I studied it, the more I learned that the old method was a very efficient and fair way of choosing presidential nominees.

I learned that it was not elitist; average people came from all over the country to Chicago or St. Louis or some central city to hammer out an agreement on who would lead the party.

I learned that it was open, in most respects: roll call votes were public, the speeches were public, and so on. You can go online and find all of the formal acceptance addresses and a lot of the nominating addresses without much effort. Very little of it was hammered out in secret; correspondence from generations long gone suggest that there was much less wheeling and dealing than we might otherwise expect, at least by the nominees themselves, who usually stayed away from the convention for fear of giving the impression that they were actively in pursuit of the prize.

I learned that the nominees tended to be fair reflections of the sentiment of the party during the period. There were some exceptions – like for instance in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt was probably the choice of the grassroots of the Republican party but William Howard Taft won the nomination anyway – but by and large you had men on both sides who represented the majority sentiment of their own faction. A great example of this was the victory of William Jennings Bryan in the Democratic nomination in 1896. He was young and inexperienced, certainly not what you’d call an insider, but he tapped into the mood in his own party, and it gave him the nomination.

And I learned that, by and large, the nominees tended to be decent men. For instance, when you look at the Gilded Age – which spans from about the end of the Civil War to the Panic of 1893 – it was a very corrupt time in politics; but when you look at the nominees on both sides, you generally see honorable human beings. Sure, Ulysses S. Grant allowed corruption to fester in his administration and James G. Blaine – the GOP nominee in 1884 – was kind of smarmy, but they were the exceptions.

I came to learn all of this over the last year as I was researching my book on the Democratic party. And then in the later stages of my research, I looked closer at the current way of choosing the nominee – and in comparison to the old system, I came to discover five substantial problems.

1. The current process doesn’t encourage deliberation.

E. E. Schattshneider was a very important political scientist who has been all but forgotten by everybody except scholars of political parties. That’s a shame because he was one of the most insightful thinkers on the political process. And in his book Party Government Schattscheider argued that American democracy is unthinkable without the two parties.

Why is that? It’s because, as Schattschneider argued, "The people are a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words, Yes and No. This sovereign, moreover can speak only when spoken to. As interlocutors of the people the parties frame the question and elicit the answers.”

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