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.”
To put this argument another way, democracy only makes sense as a system of government when the people are asked to choose between competing alternatives for a better society. That is, it’s not just the vote that matters, but what the vote means. Schattschneider’s argument is that the only way to give constructive meaning to a democratic contest is to have robust party competition – the quest for victory on both sides forces the parties to focus on the issues that matter most. Not all the time, of course, but rarely if ever can you find such meaning without the two parties actively competing.
Without the parties, we’d have electoral competitions much like those in the big cities or in the Solid South of 50 years ago, where political lines were drawn according to unsophisticated racial/ethnic/demographic cleavages, backroom dealings, patronage, or petty grudges between politicians.
Or, we would have something much like we have with the primary battles. Just like in the big cities or Solid South, these are democratic contests where the parties don’t matter – after all, they’re intraparty contests. And following Schattschneider, we should expect to see voters make relatively poor choices, lacking as they do a proper frame that can only be provided by the two parties.
That’s exactly what we do see. We see nomination battles often hinge on trivialities. Consider for instance, the strange rise and fall in the polls of Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. Is this evidence of a deliberative public, or just people happily supporting the flavor of the week? I say the latter.
Troublingly, we often see people vote the same way they respond in the polls – just following the crowd and basing their support on who is getting the best publicity. We call that “momentum” – the strange phenomenon wherein a victory one week helps a candidate the next week; this kind of “bandwagon effect” is not a sign of careful deliberation – quite the opposite.
We also see patterns similar to what the Democrats produced in 2008 (and 1980 and 1984, for that matter), where votes break down according to demographic affinities. Again, this is not the sign of a deliberative process.
This is dangerous for the country as a whole. After all, one of the two major party nominees will almost certainly be the next president. And a very good example of that danger is the Jimmy Carter presidency, which would simply never have happened under the old system. Carter was wholly unsuited for the job of president – in fact some Georgia politicos had speculated that if he could have run for a second term as governor, he would have lost.
He did not win the Democratic nomination in 1976 because he convinced the Democratic party that he would be the best leader, but by running a personalized, biographical campaign that emphasized his superior morality and personal magnetism. Helping him along was momentum – that is, he won the New Hampshire primary, so he "earned" good press, and that helped him in Florida, and so on. And when he got into the White House, he was a disaster
2. The process does not demand consensus.
In the old way of doing business, the old-time conventions, it didn’t matter how long it took, a candidate had to get to half-plus-one of the delegates (and prior to 1936, Democrats had to get to 2/3rds). That meant the eventual nominee was a candidate whom everybody (or almost everybody) in the party could live with, as well as parting gifts for the losers – be it in the form of a favorable plank in the platform or the vice-presidential selection.
This is not the case for the modern system. Democrats regularly win the nomination with less than half of the primary electorate (Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all had less than 50 percent). And, in 2008, John McCain became the first GOP nominee in the modern era to win with less than half the vote; 53 percent of all Republicans preferred somebody other than McCain, yet he won anyway.
We take our parties for granted, but they are some of the oldest institutions in the modern world. They need to be taken care of, their reputations are of the highest importance. And if you ask me, the party’s nominee, who clearly is most responsible for the reputation of the party, should have the backing of the party itself. Not 35 percent, not 45 percent. At least 50 percent plus one, and preferably a whole lot more.
3. The establishment is still in charge.
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?