Monday, April 25, 2016

Thoughts about the Nomination Process

There has been much hand-wringing this year about the influence of established party figures in the nominating process. The clear implication is always that there is something inherently wrong about this, because the "will of the people" might be thwarted.

A recent diatribe on this subject comes from columnist Charles M. Blow, who apparently is the resident idiot at the New York Times. Blow calls the process for the Democratic nomination "outrageous" and "unjust", and concludes by saying that "For a Democratic Party that prides itself on the grand ideals of inclusion and fairness, the nominating process is anything but."

What Blow and those like him fail to realize is this: primary voters do not nominate candidates, political parties do. This is so important that it bears repeating. Primary voters do not nominate candidates, political parties do.

Blow and those of his ilk badly need a history lesson. If they bothered to study any history, here is what they would learn. The system of using political conventions was begun in 1832, because it was thought to be a more democratic system than the one used up till then, which was that congressional caucuses picked the nominees.

The event which caused parties to desire more participation from the general public was the chaos of the 1912 Republican nominating process. Here Teddy Roosevelt was the overhelming first choice of the general Republican electorate, but incumbent president William Howard Taft controlled the conventional machinery, and he managed to hold off the challenge from TR. Even at that, Taft won only because the voting on which delegations to seat in the cases of the 254 disputed delegates (out of 1,078 total) was rigged by allowing the disputed Taft delegates to vote on their own cases. Had they not been so allowed, TR would have won the nomination. (A similar situation developed in the GOP race in 1952 between Eisenhower and another Taft, Robert Taft, but here a rule was passed prohibiting the Taft delegates from voting on their own cases, so Ike won this battle, and then the nomination.)

The folly of denying TR the 1912 nomination was revealed when TR ran as a third-party candidate in the general election and received more votes than Taft! TR won six states, while the hapless Taft won only two. After this fiasco, both parties tried to democratize the process to allow more input from party members in the general public.

However, even as late as 1968, a candidate could still win the nomination without winning a single primary. This is what happened with Hubert Humphrey, who was nominated in 1968 without winning a single primary, indeed, without even entering a single primary. The Democratic Party (over)reacted to this by democratizing the process, which led to the disasters of George McGovern in 1972, and Jimmy Carter in 1980.

The party then tried to steer an intermediate course between the voters choosing delegates and the party leaders choosing delegates. This has resulted in the system we have today. Although there is some public participation in the process, we need to recognize that it is still the party which is in charge of picking the nominee. As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution says, "The nomination of a president is not a public process. It's a party process that the parties in modern times have allowed the public to participate in."

On the Republican side, we have Donald Trump whining that the nominating process is "rigged". George Will points out that just the contrary is true. He says that, " Actually, [Trump] is having the novel experience of competing in systems that are not rigged." This is because the rules are set out in advance for all to see and use.

Will goes on to say that Trump "is theatrically enraged by two things he finds inexplicable and illegitimate — the spirit of federalism and the wisdom of The Federalist Papers. He is offended that states have the right to have different delegate-selection processes. And he is scandalized that some states have chosen processes that establish what the authors of The Federalist Papers, and the Constitution’s Framers, recommended — indirect democracy (the Framers wanted only House members directly elected) that tempers opinion by filtering it through multiple layers of deliberation. Complex delegate-selection processes test candidates' abilities that are pertinent to governing, including skillful staffing and an aptitude for long-term planning."

It can be argued that the Republicans need to have more superdelegates, like the Democrats do. The GOP does have some superdelegates, but they are obligated under the rules to vote for the candidate who won their state. Plus, they make up only 7% of the total, compared to 15% for the Dems (but not 30% as the aforementioned Mr. Blow erroneously claimed in his poorly-written column).

The idea many have that the candidate going into a convention with more delegates than anyone else should not be denied the nomination is ludicrous. If this is the case, why even have conventions? Voting could be done on the Internet, saving much time and expense. The only reason to physically get together and deliberate with other delegates is for a party to have the chance to arrive at a consensus on who the nominee should be, and in what direction the party should be moving.

The GOP convention is shaping up as potentially being quite similar to the 1880 GOP convention. There, former president Grant went into the convention as the front-runner, just as Trump is today, and he faced two challengers, Sherman and Blaine, just as Trump today faces two challengers, Cruz and Kasich. With the convention deadlocked during the first 35 ballots, the anti-Grant forces finally united behind a single candidate, and Garfield was nominated on the 36th ballot. Similarly, we have today the anti-Trump forces trying to coordinate with each other to deny Trump the majority he needs, and there is talk of the anti-Trump forces uniting to nominate Paul Ryan, who isn't even running, just as Garfield was not running in 1880.

Because there is such a bias against this sort of deliberative process, we have semi-pejorative terms being thrown around, such as a "brokered" convention. And of course there are always the negative references to the "smoke-filled" room in which the party bosses supposedly met in 1920 to choose Warren Harding as the GOP nominee. I say we should either have real conventions or do away with them. Bring on the smoke-filled rooms!