Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We're not going back to the smoke-filled rooms

Jay Cost makes the argument for going back to the convention picking the candidate instead of the present system with primaries and caucuses.
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 tend to agree with him about the deficiencies of the current system. And at least, with the convention system, there had to be some sort of consensus among the party leaders to pick the nominee rather than going with whomever won momentum coming out of states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It's hard to see that there was much consensus in picking people like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis as the Democratic nominee or picking Bob Dole or John McCain for the GOP. And if Romney wins, it will be despite the lack of enthusiasm among the the Republican electorate for him, not because of it.

He may be right, but it's not going to happen. I can't think of any example in our nation's history when we've adopted a more democratic approach to government and then curtailed that reform once we saw its results. We've vastly expanded the franchise since the founding; we've added in the popular election of senators; we've gone from party caucuses choosing the nominee to conventions to using primaries and caucuses as we do now. We've opened up the selection of delegates to the convention. In fact, we're just now fighting an under-the-radar battle to keep the National Popular Vote proposal to doing away with the Electoral College.

The parties don't have the kind of power to walk back the primary system of choosing delegates to the conventions. Heck, they don't have enough control to determine the schedule of the primary votes or to back away from the present schedule and go to a more rational regional primary sort of system. No way they would have the control to drop the entire primary system and return to what were called the smoke-filled rooms to pick their candidate.

Certainly, in recent times we could see that a convention would do a better job. A Democratic convention in 2008 would probably have picked Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. It's hard to believe that she would have been a worse choice than Obama. And imagine who might have gotten picked if the GOP were meeting in a convention this year to pick their nominee. Those leaders who took themselves out of the fight like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, or Paul Ryan might have emerged as a consensus nominee. And they would have been men that the party could have rallied around instead of someone like we're set to nominate this time around with most of the party heaving a sigh of discontentment while they hold their nose and think of how much they despise Obama as the go to the polls.

It's a nice dream, but that is all it is.