Picking the President

Is there a way—without returning to the era of the smoke-filled room—to make political conventions into true deliberative bodies?
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Almost everyone will agree that we must improve the presidential nominating process. That is not all. We must reaffirm the essential nature of American political parties and work for the improvement of the two-party system. Like horse and carriage, love and marriage, we can't have one without the other. What I suggest here will improve the two-party system, will strengthen each party, and should increase the confidence people have that political parties will perform their essential functions in self-government.

I propose that the parties resolutely take charge of improving the presidential nominating process, rather than leave it to congressional action. The Republican party and the Democratic party, instead of bemoaning the possibility that "the party is over," can grasp the chance to save themselves and the American presidency.

Those who fear political "bosses," and therefore would weaken political parties, might be reminded that parties are open and leadership positions are available for those who seek them. Those who would be cynical might also ponder the historical fact that political leaders as bosses were not all that bad in helping pick American Presidents.

I believe in the usefulness of state primaries. I believe in the usefulness of caucuses. The national nominating convention itself is fundamental, a "last clear chance" for considered action, and should be preserved. But we should design it, if we can, to be a deliberative body.

The nomination of a President should not be encased in a sterile cage. It would not do, nor would it be possible, for us to adopt the British or any other parliamentary system: The wild, exciting, emotional characteristics of party activity in the selection of presidential nominees are not to be abandoned merely because the process is not orderly and predictable. Adventure, in human terms, is more vital than efficiency. Presidential nominating procedures should exude confidence in people and their capacity for self-government. That is America's indispensable message to the world, and our immutable obligation to our heritage.

There are some characteristics we should define as desirable in the nominating process, and we should attempt to shape our process to fit those characteristics. Judith H. Parris, writing in 1972 as a research associate in the Brookings Governmental Studies Program, backed up by a bipartisan advisory council and an additional group of scholars, set forth carefully considered "Criteria for Evaluating Conventions." Her conclusions are a good starting point for renewed deliberations in the 1980s.

She notes, with acceptable justification, "the quality of presidents or candidates is not by itself an adequate standard for judging the quality of the process by which they have been selected." Some outstanding presidents, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln, for example, may have been nominated in spite of the process, instead of because of it. What should be of even greater concern is that some of the best people available in America's democracy have been, or will be, unable, or unwilling, to emerge through the process. Our choices are all too narrow.

Parris concludes that a "restructured convention" is what we need, and that "the short answer . . . is that the convention should be a representative and sometimes deliberative body, of which both party activists and party-in-the-electorate are vital organs." This is sound, but it is not simple.

It seems to me that in constituting our nominating conventions we are mixed up about the meaning of a representative body. It is necessary to resolve that confusion. The real test must be whether all segments of the voting constituency have full and free opportunity and encouragement to vote for the representative they choose to vote for—this is the crux of today's legitimate dissatisfaction with the nominating process, whether we have realized it or not. Recent reforms have made a fundamental change; now we require the candidates, not the constituents, to pick the delegates. The delegates are then, for the most part, bound to the candidates. This seems so reasonable and obvious that we can't believe it is wrong. But it is.

We did not want the bosses to pick delegates but at no time did bosses designate as many delegates as presently are slated by the presidential candidates. We wanted more segments of society to be inside the convention halls, and to achieve this we invented slating instead of individual selection. The system is fooling us if it requires a slate of sample representatives of specified segments of society to attend a convention on the pretense that the segments are therefore properly represented. Is a woman mayor any less representative of the male population of Chicago or San Francisco because of her sex? The real test is not what the mayor is, but whether everyone, male and female, regardless of color or national origin, or whatever, had the chance to vote without obstruction when she was elected.' She represents, finally, every citizen. Does a young and struggling black lawyer elected to the state legislature not represent all constituents, including those in different income groups? Is the Congress of the United States less than democratic and representative because "racial, sexual, age, and income groups" are not "in proportion to their share" of the constituency? There are not more women in Congress, it seems to me, because more women are not running for Congress; and when women get ready to move in, they will.

We cannot have a delegate that is at once the representative of a presidential candidate and a representative of the delegate's broad constituency. This is radical. I admit it. To make a delegate serve the voter instead of a candidate is radical, and will require a radical change.

It will take some jolting of our established notions to acknowledge that a delegate to a presidential nominating convention should be selected on the basis of the constituency's confidence in her or him to be representative, honest, and intelligent, regardless of all other considerations, including sex, age, color, bank account, or commitment to a particular presidential candidate. The bedrock question is whether we prefer a delegate to go to the convention to think and act for us, or whether we want a messenger to vote for a particular candidate and to vote on other questions and platform issues as that candidate might signal.

What are the advantages of sending uninstructed delegates, and how dare we ignore the sovereign vote of the people in committing a delegate to vote as we did—or some of us did?

Our present procedure for nominating presidents is a process of elimination. "This candidate," we and the press observe, "cannot make it past New Hampshire." Or, "He will be gone by Illinois." This is all right as a system for deciding the NCAA basketball championship, but it hardly serves the American republic well. I wish Howard Baker could have been considered more carefully, but he did not turn properly at the first flag, so he was ruled out of the race. That is all right for downhill slalom skiing, but adopting it for the presidential process is taking the country downhill. It might be that thinking delegates would not choose Baker, but that is not the point. Some representative group of Republicans would have had an opportunity to look at him in comparison with all other possibilities. As it is, when looking time arrives almost all of our possible candidates have gone home.

Eastern Airlines, searching for a president, could go outside its ranks and pick an astronaut as its chief executive. The Stanford Graduate School of Business could reach into the business world for its dean. Duke University could examine every basketball coach in the making an offer to the one they perceived would best serve Duke. The Methodist Church can look at every preacher in the jurisdiction when the time comes to select a bishop. The political party delegates to the national nominating conventions can consider one or two survivors who have run a crazy obstacle course. I am in favor of delegates who can look at the full field, and even beyond the full field, to pick for us the best possible presidential candidate.

Adlai Stevenson and Charles Evans Hughes would never have been candidates had they been required to gear up for a present-day campaign survival exercise, and yet they were, with some reluctance, willing to have their names and qualifications considered by a thoughtful convention of delegates. We need a process that makes it easier for such people to be considered, that makes it possible to seek out those who are highly qualified, to draft the man or woman who could best serve the nation. A burning desire to be President, a necessary trait under today's rules, is not the most admirable characteristic, but we have made it the most essential. To change the concept is radical indeed, but certainly we should search out the best.

The vote of the constituency, be it in voting booth or in caucus, is typically not very clear-cut. There will be in the early stages of the presidential campaign a number of candidates, and a clear majority vote for any single candidate is unlikely. We have no way of indicating a second choice; obviously the person with the second largest vote is not necessarily the constituency's second choice. The person in fourth place could be almost everybody's second choice. It is also true that the average voter does not see much finality about the primary or caucus election, and could be voting with less serious determination than he or she would in the general election.

Of greater danger in giving binding instructions too early is that if the delegates and the constituents were provided the opportunity to learn more about the qualifications and characteristics of the candidate, they might all change their minds.

Ideally, we should want a delegate honorable and uninstructed, but aware of and responsive to the feelings of the constituency, and finally accountable to the constituency. Accountability doesn't apply, some would argue, since a delegate is a one-shot representative who cannot be voted out because of a miscalculation of the constituency's desires. I disagree.

Walter Cronkite argues that convention television coverage makes the delegate "less responsive to political manipulation and more to the loud, clear voice of his constituents back home than he was before television. Because of television's full coverage the folks back home are just as conversant with the issues, the men, and even the back-room deals, as is the delegate, and they let him know their feelings with a constant flood of telegrams and telephone calls. He is more the people's representative than ever before." (This was written before the new rules. Now it does no good to wire or call.)

"With the advent of television, the very purpose of the convention has been broadened. Before, it was a relatively private meeting to determine party policy and select those candidates the delegates and their leaders thought had the best chance to lead the party to victory."

The delegate has to go home, and will be called on to explain, and the vast majority of those who manage to become delegates will want other honors and political opportunities. Even so, the question is, Do we want to trade the messenger concept for the deliberative delegate concept?

Those of us who have over the years sought fairer representation for women and members of minorities might well be apprehensive that abandoning candidate slating would decrease the degree of "representation" they have attained. I would be willing to bet this is not so. Women and members of minorities are increasingly winning public offices, and could present a particularly appealing case in a delegate election. It is, as a matter of fact, an ideal point of entry into political activity. In any event, would not those somewhat favored in the recent past by special preference, women and minorities, find it more satisfying to go as duly elected, independent, responsible, and responsive delegates?

I recommend three specific changes in the nominating process.

Change One: Send thinking delegates to the national conventions. This means we must elect delegates who are uninstructed. It would be ideal to elect them from the smallest possible districts, specifically one delegate per district.

The party rules can be changed simply to require that the delegates be elected individually, on the basis of the confidence the voters have in them, just as we elect school board members, state representatives, and other public officials. Then we would have going to the convention a real live person, instead of the equivalent of a blip on a computer tape, slated by a candidate's staff, programmed to vote just so and nothing else.

The candidate-for-delegate can make whatever pledges she or he considers appropriate. "I am inclined to be for Reagan, but could be for Baker, and could support Bush as we learn more about him. I might even go for Ford." How is that for indecision? But is not that how most of us think? Certainly in the early stages of the sweepstakes.

Democratic rules presently require that delegates "shall be elected at the Congressional District level or lower." Lower is better, and one delegate per district is better still, and should be a requirement, for it would result in a delegation that more accurately mirrors the voter makeup, and would provide a wholesome diversity without quotas or slating.

Such thinking delegates could be chosen by an election or by caucus; that would not make much difference. I prefer election. There is less chance of manipulation. Rules now permit a limited number of party leaders and officials to be selected at large; this need not be altered.

This plea for thinking delegates is inherently fairer, more open and representative, than the present slating of a delegation favorable to one candidate. The voters' choices are presently too limited; they can look at two, sometimes several slates, or candidates' names that will translate into slates, and take it or leave it, like it or lump it. The voter is entitled to a more influential vote, and the good of the republic demands it.

Selecting thinking delegates does not deny the presidential candidate the opportunity to gather in favorable delegates in advance of the convention. And surely no presidential candidate should be fearful of having the support of thinking delegates.

There could be some abuses in delegate selection. There are now. Campaign expenditures should be defined, and the party rules would need to limit, preferably prohibit, presidential campaign funds spent in behalf of individual delegate-candidates without full and timely disclosure. The best way to deal with this is not by means of federal or state legislation, but by party rules.

There is another worry. Without a feeling of direct participation by actually voting for a presidential candidate, or his designated slate, would voters take any interest in such a campaign? Would they turn out? Would labor unions, teachers' associations, trade groups, and other well-organized, politically oriented organizations be able to over-ride the general will of the public? Would the voters disdain the uncommitted delegates?

These are not the only doubts that can be raised, but we cannot turn away from the task because of doubts. Restoration of the nominating process demands change, so party leaders can dwell on all the doubts, and guard against the flaws, as they seek a system that results in our getting thinking delegates. Perhaps delegates can be committed but not bound, with the general understanding that we know where they stand but want them to feel free to change as best suits the nation. The various requirements of holding the delegate legally bound until released by the presidential candidate have little justification; by right the delegate is not the candidate's delegate—he or she should be the people's delegate.

Change Two: Achieve a contemplative convention by electing the delegates in time for them to meet with the candidates, and in time for the candidates to electioneer with the delegates.

While it is good to suppose that delegates chosen the new way can be more deliberative in convention, the emotion, excitement, and immediacy make careful examination and contemplation difficult. The delegates, most of them, will have established their preferences before leaving home; although there can be additional learning and understanding in talking with other delegates, and in the whirlwind visits by candidates, there is a better way to obtain a contemplative convention. The time frame for election of delegates can be set so that all delegates are chosen by a date some two months in advance of the national convention. Then the candidates, instead of dashing around to last-hour primaries, can be talking to the delegates who have been elected to examine them. More important, the delegates can, with greater objectivity, do what they were elected to do: find out all there is to know about all the candidates.

This is not a difficult change in the present rules, and can be easily accomplished. Taken hand in hand with the concept of representative delegates to be entrusted with democracy's decision, it will supply the missing essential ingredient to the process of nominating a presidential candidate.

We have not known very much about several of the recent candidates until they had the nomination in hand. That they have turned out to be satisfactory is no excuse for allowing this dangerous flaw in the system to remain. The intense examination of candidates, their views and peculiarities, their strengths and weaknesses, is not today part of the presidential nomination scenario.

True, we have occasional debates, but they do not tell us much. It is quite possible that the 1960 debates turned the tide against Richard Nixon, and while there were doubtless adequate reasons for the voters to reject Nixon, the fact that he sweated profusely and looked nervous when he was nervous was not one of them.

True, we have televised question-and-answer shows that are helpful, but they cannot be exhaustive and seldom have been intense. There are articles in magazines and newspapers, but they are sporadic and ex parte.

While, under our present rules, all of this fragmented and scanty educational process is going on, more and more delegates are being elected and bound to Vote in a way that makes their education about the candidates irrelevant to them and to their constituents.

With elected representative delegates sitting out there two months in advance, we would have an institutionalized system for deeper analysis, more thorough examination, and ample contemplation. The press could report more of factual performance, less of the gamesmanship of the candidates.

The delegates would take on quite a task on behalf of their constituents. They would be bombarded by callers and campaign material; but so are road commissioners and school board members bombarded by constituents—it is a healthy part of democratic communication. They would be drawing out information that in the past has not been called up. Each could be making a deliberate and thoughtful decision.

It is possible that there would not be much improvement, and other abuses of the process would be invented by ambitious people. If so, the parties could make additional changes, because rules of the parties can be changed through accepted and fairly simple procedures.

Certainly the rules would have to anticipate some abuses. It would be well to provide that candidates could spend no money on delegates, not even for a meal, and certainly not for an airplane ticket. Let the state party, buy the chicken, or let the delegates pay individually if a meal is appropriate. It would be well to provide that neither the can nor friends nor anyone else could transport delegates to places of entertainment, or even to meeting places. The relationship between delegates and candidates would have to be above reproach, which is not necessarily the case today with uncommitted delegates, since rules do not focus on this relationship. How to enforce this? A violation could disqualify the delegate and mike room for an alternate. Such shenanigans would also discredit a presidential candidate in the eyes of the delegates. The press could, and would, publicize such indiscretions.

Each delegation could schedule meetings with each candidate for in-depth discussions and cross-examination. Quickie joint appearances of candidates would no longer be appropriate. In larger states the delegates could meet candidates in smaller, regional groups.

Candidates could certainly send mail and material to delegates, call them, and visit them, to whatever extent the candidates thought appropriate and the delegates thought acceptable. Constituents, too, could have a continuing dialogue with their delegates.

Sitting presidents who were challenged within their party would be subject to close scrutiny, and could not ignore the elected delegates. They would not, on the other hand, be required to involve themselves in primary campaigns. The President, like other candidates, could be called to account before duly elected representatives of the party, but would not be subjected to the time-diverting task of personal campaigning state by state, a situation that is itself diverting, and therefore dangerous.

The presidential candidates would then campaign with those with whom the decision rests, but in full view of the public. The public and their constituents could directly influence the delegates as they learned more about the several candidates. They would much more likely be "representative" when they arrived at the convention hall.

Change Three: Maintain state primaries, but schedule them within time limits established by the parties. Separate the primary election from the delegate selection process.

Delegates would be elected on their representative merits, not slated on the basis of a primary vote. The primary would be used to its best advantage—displaying the talents and campaigning capacities of the person to be selected as the party's presidential candidate—without the disadvantage of locking in delegate votes on the basis of often inconclusive votes revealing inexact directions regarding voter interests.

The presidential primary performs an extremely important function. Making all presidential primaries preferential will be something of a jolt for those who think this is a reliable voice of democracy.

I favor setting six primary days—designated Tuesdays in March and April. Either party could take this step and the other would follow. Then the individual state could pick a date, if it wanted a primary. There is no necessity for having the primaries evenly divided among the designated dates, and it is preferable to have them scattered across the nation on each primary day. Those who fear that a candidate will not get what he "rightfully earned" might contemplate that the nation today stands in constant peril of getting what it does not deserve. It is apparent that we should not leave things as they are; who among us cannot find serious inequities and dangers in the existing maze of primaries?

The three changes to provide a deliberative body of convention delegates who are positioned to examine carefully everything about every candidate are: (1) election of delegates free to think for themselves and guided by the generalized and communicated desires of those who elected them; (2) election of delegates from single-delegate districts, in time to listen to their constituents at length and to hear the presidential candidates, at length; and (3) presidential primaries that instruct but do not bind.

These are substantial changes, and it will require determined party leadership to achieve them, but they could provide new public assurances that we are carefully choosing the leader of our democratic society in the best republican tradition of our representative democracy.

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