My alluring wife accuses me of harboring a “weird aversion” to the televised debates that seem to be the sum and substance of the Republican campaign for the presidency. I plead guilty to the charge. And “weird” may well be the right word, for although our modern political myth-ology is now populated with memorable debate moments—“there you go again . . . my daughter Amy . . . fuzzy math”—I seem to be a party of one in disdaining the form and believing it does more harm than good.
Since 1976, when the practice was revived after a 16-year lapse, my argument has been that ours is not a parliamentary system, and that the ability to answer snarky questions from journalists, or engage in snappy repartee on camera, has nothing to do with success in the presidency. I am not sure how warmly Franklin Roosevelt or James Knox Polk would have been perceived by post-debate focus groups. And too many turning points in these historic confrontations—Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, the elder Bush consulting his wristwatch, the imaginary rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis—have been almost totally devoid of significance. Watch the legendary Kennedy-Nixon debates—pitting the youthful (43) Jack against the ancient (47) Dick—and you would guess that the islands of Quemoy and Matsu were the most important issue of the 1960s.
Indeed, in the current contest, Mitt Romney, the candidate who has (in my view) the best chance of defeating the incumbent, has been steadily impressive in every debate yet penalized by the media because he appears to be respected rather than loved. Conversely, Newt Gingrich, a candidate who (in my view) is among the least likely to defeat the incumbent, has benefited in recent polls from his tactical decision to debate the press instead of his fellow candidates. So instead of voters choosing their presidential nominee, the media are effectively in charge of the process. How this benefits the prospects of the Republican party is not clear to me. And I suppose, in that sense, what really annoys me about these serial beauty contests is that they are a product of the Democratic party’s long-term project of crippling itself as a national party.
Readers of a certain age will remember the disorder and uncertainty of 1968, which was duly reflected in the Democratic party politics of the time: an insurgent campaign (Eugene McCarthy) against a sitting president (Lyndon Johnson), the assassination of one aspirant (Robert Kennedy), a suicidally chaotic national convention (Chicago), another insurgent candidacy by a nominal Democrat (George Wallace) which administered the coup de grâce to the regular nominee (Hubert Humphrey) in November.
By the morning after Richard Nixon’s election, the Democrats had been so demoralized by the sequence of events that they concluded the nominating process—which had yielded FDR, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and JFK in modern times—was somehow at fault, and that the top-down politics of bosses, smoke-filled rooms, and county chairmen had to be replaced by a kind of people’s democracy. This meant primaries, not state conventions, with issues activists, not party regulars, at the controls. For in the words of the McGovern Commission, which was created by the Democratic National Committee to reinvent the business of choosing candidates during 1969-70, “women, young people, and blacks found delegate positions at the Democratic Convention to be among the political offices that still remained beyond their reach.”
Here began the Democratic party’s policy of organizing itself along lines of race and sex, eventually mandating quotas and marginalizing those who had supported the party on pragmatic or historical grounds. It seemed to me, a lowly intern (and sometime speechwriter) at the DNC, that this was pandering to one agitated segment of the party, and that it would drive away those elements—the voters Nixon called “the silent majority” and who were later diagnosed as “Reagan Democrats”—discomfited by the party’s leftward lurch, including isolationism. Of course, it is no coincidence that the first candidate to benefit from the McGovern reforms was George McGovern himself, whose 1972 coalition of “the poor, the black, and the young” (and the antiwar left) went down to historic defeat, but whose influence remains vital, especially in Congress and the media.
From my perspective, two good things came out of the McGovern Commission: I got to know its research director Ken Bode (later of NBC News), who has remained a lifelong friend; and Republicans have benefited from the long-term effects of the Democrats’ left-wing populism and dismantling of party discipline.
So why has the Grand Old Party, in its wisdom, chosen to leave the nominating process to chance, and created a vacuum now filled by these stylized, press-run vaudeville performances? A question, perhaps, for the next cattle call.