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National Issues

When the Nominating System is a Whole Lot Better than the Argument Against It…. PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bob Bauer   
February 19, 2008
This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

Everyone’s a critic, and in political argument, this is reason for celebration.  It is better still if the criticism is reasoned, exhibiting a coherent point of view and not simply a reflex action.  Two prominent historians have criticism to offer of the Presidential nominating process, and this, the criticism, comes through, with no trace of the coherent point of view. Sean Wilentz and Julian E. Zelizer, "A Rotten Way to Pick a President,"  Washington Post (Feb. 17, 2008) at B3.  Granted that no system is perfect—granted, too, that this system in place will have weaknesses that alternatives could correct.  Sean Wilentz and Julian Zelizer steer an erratic course through their diagnosis of the problem, with no prospect of arriving at convincing answers.

Wilentz and Zelizer dislike machine politics, prevalent prior to the party reforms of the l970’s, but it turns out they dislike those reforms, too.  They were marred by “excesses.”  The authors mean that while the “old ways were unfair and autocratic,” the new and reformed ways could be “highly undemocratic.”

They are referring here in part to caucuses.  Now caucuses did not as a group come under fire until people began turning out at them and casting votes with a significant effect on the nominating process.  Only the Iowa Caucuses have been consistently rapped over the years with any meaningful objection, but this was less as a caucus (the virtues of which were highly touted for years, as a vindication of retail politics) and more because its first-in-the-nation place on the calendar was believed to give it undue influence.

If either author warned about the role of caucuses prior to this year, I, for one, missed it.  In 2004, John Kerry swept caucuses, when they barely mattered as his momentum carried him to victories across the nation, and not a word of protest was heard.  Now that they have mattered, Wilentz and Zelizer are moved to complain.  An objection lodged against a process only when participation increases and counts for something could strike a reasonable observer as “highly undemocratic.”

Then the authors wag their fingers against open primaries.  The authors mention appeals to members of the other party, and the cross-over participation of these voters, as motivated by mischief either on the part of Republican voters, plotting to help nominate a weak candidate, or on the part of Democratic candidates who seek votes outside the party “in order to stop a rival.”  There are other explanations, more benign and promising than mischievous maneuvering.  Parties may open their primaries to encourage broad participation and wide appeal,  and candidates might appeal to voters from other parties and to Independents in the belief that they might aid the party in the general election competition.

Even closed primaries have a bad name in this piece, but here the danger lies in the campaign commitments exacted by party activists “extreme” in their views.  In whatever direction one turns—open, closed or caucuses—grave peril lies ahead

The media come in for their comeuppance, too:  they spoil debates.  Wilentz and Zieltzer imagine that the press would have ruined the Lincoln-Douglas debates but did not, for journalists were not “onstage.”  It is impossible to know where to begin in making sense of this argument.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates might have come off just fine with journalists present.  Or the crowd would have been glad to have the modern media present, since with thousands gathered for these events but without good audio and video, it must have been hard to hear and see in the way back. Or we could pass on the very question, because it is rather pointless.

The authors are adamant, however, that the press is responsible for the sorry state of debates—and, for good measure, they charge that the form of debate that journalists encourage drives expensive television advertising and the resort to negative advertising. By this time, one is left holding one’s head or looking for something to dull the ache.

At the end of this all, Wilentz and Zelitzer try the “proof in the pudding” argument and remind us all that party bosses “turned out to be strikingly skilled at nominating strong candidates."  Two of the success they profile, Truman and Johnson, were not nominated by party bosses: each first succeeded to the Presidency on the death of their successor who was, in each instance, solely responsible for their accession to the Vice Presidency.

Wilentz and Zelitzer conclude, confidently, that their case against the current system is “glaringly clear.”  This is what it is not.  What is clear is that any system will cause unhappiness somewhere, on one or the other ground, and frequently for no reason better than that the critic did not like the results.  It may be true, as these distinguished historians stated, that "we could still get it right in 2012.”  The first step is getting right the analysis of the problem and the appraisal of alternatives.  We’ll have to wait longer for that.
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