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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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One of the ambitions of the people who replaced the convention system with this “open” process was it would take the power away from the establishment and give it to the people. I would argue their efforts have had, in large part, the opposite effect.

Historically speaking, the Republican party has long been divided between the well-heeled establishment in the Northeast and the small town conservatives of the Midwest (who have in recent years aligned with the conservative Sun Belt). From the Civil War to the Great Depression, the Midwest held the balance of power, as more than two-thirds of the Republican nominees came from Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio. After the Depression, when Democrats surged in the Northeast, the establishment began to dominate the GOP, as the party nominated moderates Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Alf Landon, Richard Nixon, and Wendell Wilkie, all of whom had the blessing of the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The conservatives, most notably Robert Taft, were left on the outside looking in.

One would think that opening up the nomination process to the broader GOP electorate would diminish the power of the establishment, but that would be incorrect. Money is the name of the game in the primary battle, and the establishment has plenty of it to spread around.

For instance, the top three GOP fundraisers in 2008 were Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Their hauls were overwhelmingly tilted to the establishment – Giuliani collected 55 percent of his money from those who gave more than $2,300, while Romney pulled in 48 percent and McCain collected 34 percent. What’s more, the securities/investment industry contributed nearly 10 percent of Giuliani and Romney’s total hauls, with the big banks (like Lehman and Citi) making up nearly 20 percent of those contributions.

In other words, the rise of the primary system has not degraded the power of the well-heeled Republican establishment. They may not have the votes, but they have the cash that candidates need for the votes.

And not only that, but the nature of the modern campaign has spawned an entire industry of “insider” Republicans – the campaign consultants you so often see cited in stories from Politico or the Washington Post. These people make their living as modern day ward heelers; they’re not elected, not chosen by the people, but they have special skill sets – like conducting polls or focus groups or crafting campaign commercials and what not – that make them indispensible. They existed before the current process, of course, but today's system has only enhanced their power.

4. The system is too expensive.  

Through March of 2008, Republican presidential candidates had raised better than $300 million. This was money dedicated not to campaigning against the Democrats, but against each other.

And we’re going to do the same thing this year around. Republicans have spent the last year campaigning not against Obama, but against themselves. In years past, when the nomination was settled at conventions, there was usually no need for such extravagant expenditures. You lined up your delegates and fought it out at the convention. Think of all the campaign dollars that could be re-allocated to campaigning against your actual opponents!

 5. The system is the unintended consequence of a failed liberal experiment.

The first major party convention happened in 1831 when the National Republicans nominated Henry Clay. The use of a convention was supposed to convey a sense of openness and consensus – Clay was the choice of a meeting of National Republicans from all across the country, who came to select him by their own volition. This wasn’t necessarily true, but it was close enough to accurate. The Democrats followed suit in 1832, and it became a tradition for the party leadership to gather every four years to meet in the open to select a nominee and settle upon a platform.

The new system’s origins are not as venerable. The far left of the Democratic party had wanted to dump Hubert Humprhey in 1968 in favor of Gene McCarthy, George McGovern or some other far-left candidate. Humphrey was the vice-president and an old-time liberal, the kind that just are not around anymore, and he had the backing of President Lyndon Johnson and the party establishment. He won on the first ballot, despite not having participated in any primaries.

As a sop to the anti-war left, the establishment adopted a resolution at the convention that called for party reform – but they didn’t even think twice about it. They didn’t deliberate about whether it was a good idea, what it would mean for the party, or anything. They just passed it because they felt obliged to give the anti-war faction at least a gesture of good will. But the left-wingers knew an opening when they saw it. They dominated the reform process and pushed through a series of changes that they thought would open up the nomination process and give them an edge within the party.

However, they badly miscalculated. What they wanted were party nominating caucuses, where this “New Politics” left could take advantage of its intense supporters and make sure nominees from the far left wing of the Democratic party would be selected. The reformers did not want primaries because they believed they would favor the ill-informed voters and probably the establishment candidates, like LBJ or Humphrey.

Yet in the end, the party establishment had the last laugh. The establishment didn’t like primaries either, but it figured they would keep the far-left from taking over the local party. So after the reformers laid down their broad guidelines for how the new system would work, the party establishment began adopting primaries like what we have today.

So, let’s put these two origin stories next to each other, to compare and contrast. The original nomination system was designed by people who wanted to find an open and democratic way to nominate Henry Clay, the greatest American statesmen between the Founding and the Civil War. This method stood the test of time for nearly 150 years because it worked for everybody (except the leftists of the 60s).

Today’s nomination system, on the other hand, is the product of far-left experimentation, which produced results that the know-it-all liberal do-gooders utterly failed to anticipate.

Which system sounds better to you?

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