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.

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