Would Stronger Parties Produce Better Candidates?
On March 22, the New York Post ran a fine article by Jonah Goldberg that mainly dealt with the Electoral College. Those who are offended by how America elects her presidents would do well to read Goldberg’s concise piece, as it has some good info on how presidents in other nations are elected. But there was something else, perhaps a tad off-topic, that caught my attention (italics added):
As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution has observed, America is the only advanced democracy that has decided to strip its political parties of the power to select their own candidates. Until 1972 -- through conventions, smoke-filled rooms, etc. -- the parties, not the voters, determined who their presidential candidates would be. This function is among the informal checks and balances that make democracy workable around the globe; we scrapped it in favor of ever more open primaries.
America now suffers from a political paradox: This is one of the most partisan times in American history, but the parties have never been weaker.
Goldberg doesn’t provide a link for Ms. Kamarck, but I will: her bio-page at Brookings. There we find a link to Kamarck’s book Primary Politics, which is subtitled: “Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.” Also, if one clicks on “Research” toward the bottom, one will find quite an archive of Kamarck’s articles, including this report from April of 2017: “Re-inserting peer review in the American presidential nomination process.” The short report is worth reading in itself, but it serves mainly as an introduction to Kamarck’s 12-page pdf paper of the same title.
As she was a superdelegate to the last five Democrat conventions and has been a member of the Democratic Nation Committee, Kamarck may appear to some conservatives like a mortal enemy straight out of Mordor. But I urge you to read her report and then click on “full paper,” if for no other reason than her history of our presidential nominating process. From the full paper:
For almost two centuries, from 1796 to 1968, the candidates who ran for president were chosen in a process that was almost entirely closed to the public. Most Americans today would consider these processes unfair and undemocratic because of changes that took place beginning with the 1972 nomination process. […]
But, as we saw in 2008 and again in 2016, the public regards their role in the nomination process as a right. It would be nearly impossible to turn back the clock and allow delegates to the conventions to be free to vote their own conscience without regard to the winner of their state’s primary or caucus.
Kamarck’s right, going back to selecting presidential nominees the old way, with no input from the public, would rile a lot of Americans, some of whom also want to abolish the Electoral College. Some Americans would also get rather miffed if we repealed the 17th Amendment and let state legislatures choose U.S. senators. But voters who want to keep the primary system just as it is should consider that they are the ones who elected the clowns they see in D.C. So, should the public regard “their role in the nomination process as a right?”
Perhaps those who would be ready to riot if we went back to the old way of coming up with candidates would also like to have national plebiscites to decide important issues, like the U.K. did with Brexit. Because the British government doesn’t seem to want to abide by the will of the people to leave the EU, Nigel Farage recently created the new Brexit Party.
Those offended by the idea that the public should have no role is the selection of political candidates might consider that in our representative democracy (our republic), almost all decisions, including those for personnel, are made by government, not the public. I’m gonna hazard a guess and say that the public is shut out of around 99.999998 percent of governmental decisions; perhaps you have a more precise estimate.
Kamarck proposes three reforms to the primary process the specifics of which I’ll let you read. But essentially what she’s proposing is that party insiders and elites (mainly elected officials) take bigger roles in the process of selecting their party’s presidential candidates. What she means by “peer review” is mainly endorsements and votes of confidence by party insiders. The one big substantive change she does urge is the adoption of superdelegates by the Republican Party. (But why, so the GOP can be just like the Dems?)
The key event that brought about Kamarck’s push for reform seems to be the emergence and success of one Donald J. Trump. She has reservations about Trump’s lack of experience in public office. However, she does not dismiss this possibility: “If, in fact, Trump turns out to be a successful or even moderately successful American president, the decades-long argument about the importance of peer review in the nominating system will be put to rest.”
Not only that, a successful Trump presidency would also “put to rest” the idea that only career politicians can run the government. What’s left out of Kamarck’s analysis is an appreciation that the American electorate is sick to death of professional politicians. The favorability ratings of Congress are about those of pond scum, scabies, scrofula, and the mainstream media. Yet, with her idea of greater peer review by insiders and the elected elites, she advocates for an even greater role for the very people the electorate holds in such low esteem.
Though Kamarck’s paper is quite worth reading, don’t buy her ideas on how to fix the primary system. Except for the GOP superdelegates idea, Kamarck’s reforms aren’t revolutionary; she’s nibbling around the edges. Rather than tweaking the primary system, it should be junked, and we should go back to the pre-McGovern era before 1972 when the parties had self-determination and were much stronger.
In 2016, this kid did what he could as a “citizen journalist” to keep Donald Trump off the ballot. I feared Mr. Trump would take down the entire Republican Party. Instead, he took down two dynasties, and his coattails helped retain GOP control of Congress. Just so you know, I did end up voting for Trump, and support much of what he’s doing as president. Indeed, Trump may be just what America needs at this time. But here’s the twist: Trump came to power through the current primary system, the same system I’m urging we scrap.
Honest Americans should admit that both the pre-1972 and the post-1972 systems have produced both good and bad presidents. So, if we were to scrap the current primary system, the parties would need to refashion themselves so that they would produce not only the best and truest candidates (no more duds like Dukakis), but also occasionally produce a “disruptive” candidate, like a Trump, when the nation needs to go in a new direction. How do we do that?
One way to create a stronger better party would be to ban elective politicians from being in the party’s organization, its committees, its apparatus, and not allow such officials to vote in their nominating conventions. Just like Elaine Kamarck, I’m for greater and better peer review, just with a different set of peers.
Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.