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Notes & Comment -- November 1995

The Elite Primary

It's the real first-in-the-nation contest. At stake: the Rolodex men, the press, and Rush Limbaugh

by David Frum

Think of the Democratic Party as a particularly wild debutante. Again and again she ignores the tut-tutting of her friends and hurls herself at some mysterious stranger: JFK, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Clinton. Think of the Republican Party as the Democrats' serious-minded sister. In all but one of the past nine elections she has opted for her highest-ranking or most senior leader: Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972; Ford, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush. To find an election in which the party rejected its heir apparent in favor of an insurgent, one has to look all the way back to 1964, when the draft-Goldwater movement knocked aside Nelson Rockefeller, the multi-millionaire governor of New York State.

This year three men--Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, and Lamar Alexander--entertain serious hopes of besting 1996's Republican heir apparent, Bob Dole. Gramm and Wilson can at least claim some heir-apparent legitimacy of their own--Gramm as the Senate's Mr. Conservative, Wilson as the governor of the largest state in the nation. Lamar Alexander, however, stands way, way back in the Republican queue. His résumé (two-term governor of Tennessee, Secretary of Education under George Bush), while creditable, ought to push him down among the Dick Lugars and Arlen Specters and other no-hopers. But for all his lack of reputation, Alexander is running a big-time campaign.

By the end of the June filing period he had raised $7.6 million, less than Bob Dole's $13.4 million, but a considerable amount of money by anybody's definition. Six of the past eight Republican National Committee finance chairmen have joined his campaign. Alexander has signed up the most brilliant of Republican media men, Mike Murphy; some of the cleverest of the Washington policy wonks; Pete Wilson's onetime biggest donor; and the man who chaired Bob Dole's 1988 New Hampshire campaign. The strategists of the Alexander campaign insist that it is precisely because their man is not the heir apparent that he can incarnate the populist, anti-Washington political passions of the 1990s. They intend, they say, to run an insurgency campaign, very like the campaigns that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 and nearly nominated Gary Hart in 1984.

But there remains one difference: the Goldwater, Carter, and Hart campaigns drew their strength from the enthusiasm of previously disorganized voting blocs. Goldwater excited the nascent conservative movement, Carter mobilized evangelical voters, and Hart appealed to upper-income Democrats who leaned to the right of their party economically and to the left of it on social issues. It is not, however, voter excitement that fuels the Alexander campaign. Alexander boasts nothing like the network of militants who seized the Republican nomination for Goldwater. His campaign is a phalanx of Republican donors and campaign operatives--an army of generals and colonels. For all Alexander's attacks on out-of-touch political elites, it's hard to remember a Republican candidacy that has gambled so completely on the power and persuasiveness of those same elites. And Alexander's ability to persist in the contest with hardly any popular support--to go on paying the exorbitant costs of a first-tier presidential campaign despite his four-percent showing in the polls--demonstrates that some people believe the gamble may not be an entirely misconceived one.

But then, what choice has Alexander got? In an excess of irony, twenty years of political reforms intended to minimize the influence of wealthy donors and maximize popular participation in the nominating process have achieved precisely the opposite result. Increasingly, the crucial primary does not occur in any one particular state: it is a shadowy national competition to raise money, sign up prominent supporters, and impress the media in the year preceding the election year. It is this "elite primary" that winnowed out Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, and other Republican aspirants.

The more ingenious Alexander, in contrast, has brilliantly turned the system to his own advantage. The Tennessee law firm headed by the former senator Howard Baker is cheerfully paying him a salary of $295,000 for the services he can spare it in the intervals between full-time campaigning. (That sum lands with a gratifying smack atop the $3 million to $6 million fortune that--as Lisa Schiffren reported in the September American Spectator--generous friends helped Alexander accumulate with hardly any money down.) And it is his success in the elite primary that has marked Lamar Alexander as a serious candidate in 1996, despite his near-total invisibility among the Republican rank and file.



Materialist explanations of history have, for obvious reasons, fallen out of fashion recently. Nevertheless, it is two hard material facts that shape the system of presidential-candidate selection: the primary schedule and the campaign-finance laws.

As late as 1968 fewer than half the voting delegates at the national party conventions were chosen by primary voters. That year Robert F. Kennedy won every primary he entered except Oregon's, but had he lived, he almost certainly would have lost the Democratic nomination to the favorite of the party leaders, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Selection by party leaders was not to happen again. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of immense suspicion of traditional elites and hierarchies, and in those years state after state abandoned the caucus or convention method of delegate selection in favor of the primary. By 1972 a majority of those able to cast a ballot at a national convention had been elected in a state primary and arrived pledged to a candidate. But the two parties did not immediately digest the logic of the primary system, because for years it appeared that little had changed--the nomination fight proceeded at the leisurely pace of the early years of the century, beginning in Iowa in the dead of winter, arriving in the big midwestern states in the spring, and culminating in California in early June.

The first candidate to understand the implications of imposing a new method of picking delegates upon the old schedule was Jimmy Carter. He realized that by painstakingly working the state of Iowa for months, almost as if he were running for governor, he could post a surprisingly strong showing in that state. His win there transformed him into a national figure, enabling him to raise money to fight the big, costly primaries later in the year. George Bush copied the Carter method in 1980, and though he didn't win the Republican nomination, he did promote himself from being a relatively inconsequential politician into the vice presidency.

But the Carter method hasn't worked since. In the mid-1980s the leisurely schedule inherited from the bygone days of caucuses and state conventions began to be compressed. Anxious to pull their party in a more conservative direction, southern Democrats grouped their 1988 primaries together in one "Super Tuesday." With hundreds of delegates from the nation's most conservative states up for grabs on a single day in March, relatively early in the primary season, aspirants would, it was hoped, adopt a new, right-leaning political argot. At first the plan backfired--with Richard Gephardt, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis dividing the white vote, the surprise beneficiary of the first Super Tuesday was Jesse Jackson--but it did succeed in cramping the hopes of Carter-style insurgents by denying them time to capitalize on early successes in the small states. In 1988 Bob Dole and Pat Robertson relegated George Bush to a humiliating third-place finish in Iowa, to no avail. In 1992 Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to President Bush soon fizzled out, despite an impressive 37 percent finish in New Hampshire.

It is only in the past two years, however, that the primary system has reached its full logical conclusion. Why, state party officials in places like Arizona and Delaware wondered, should Iowa and New Hampshire call the tune? We want to be relevant. And why, officeholders in giant states like California and Ohio asked in their turn, should dinky states like Arizona and Delaware take control of the nomination from Iowa and New Hampshire? We want to be relevant too. And so was triggered a pell-mell scramble forward through the calendar.

In 1992, despite Super Tuesday, it took the Republicans until April 27 to nominate 60 percent of their delegates, and until May 5--the old date of the Ohio primary--to get past 70 percent. In 1996 nearly 70 percent of all Republican delegates will have been nominated by April Fool's Day. Before, a losing candidate might keep struggling, hoping to pick up California's huge block of delegates in the first week of June. California now votes at the end of March, and after that a trailing candidate is effectively out of the race.

The intensification of the schedule does not merely speed up the nominating process; it also spreads it out geographically. A candidate must now campaign in more states at the same time than ever before: Colorado and Connecticut, Georgia and Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont, will all vote on March 5, and New York on March 7. Then on to Texas and Oregon, Florida and Mississippi, Tennessee and Oklahoma, a week later. Jimmy Carter enjoyed seven weeks of relative calm in which to fund-raise after Iowa. In 1996 candidates will need to charter jets, gear up national organizations, and buy Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City broadcast time as early as mid-February. They'd better have their millions banked by this Christmas--or even earlier. Even in New Hampshire, television commercials have become decisive. David Shribman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, has covered New Hampshire primaries for twenty years. He says it has long since ceased to be true that you can carry New Hampshire by shaking hands: "You can't win if you're on the village green but not on the television screen."

Which bumps us up against the other hard fact of American politics: its campaign-finance laws. These laws, adopted in the wake of the Watergate scandal, set a $1,000 maximum on any individual's gift to a presidential candidate and a $5,000 maximum on giving by a political-action committee. They also effectively imposed a cap on what a presidential candidate who accepts federal matching funds may spend to win the nomination--in 1996 it will be about $36 million. In one of politics' most spectacular examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the Democratic authors of the reforms, who hoped to limit the influence of the wealthy on the presidential race and at the same time to enhance the relative clout of their trade-union allies (labor unions' PACs at the time were more powerful than they are now), instead enlarged the power of contributors beyond all previous measure.

In unreformed America a candidate like George McGovern could run for office with the support of a few very rich backers who held eccentric ideas. But with an individual-donor limit of $1,000 and a spending limit of $36 million, it no longer suffices to locate a few eccentric millionaires. A candidate must spend the now-all-important year before the primaries winning the support of thousands of affluent contributors. It's like filling a bathtub with a tablespoon. And since not even the most grimly determined candidate can woo so many people one by one, he or she must first win the support of the few hundred maestros of the Rolodex who have proved their ability and willingness to sponsor the fund-raising galas, cocktail parties, breakfast meetings, and intimate suppers necessary to extract the requisite quota of funds from each major region's check-writing Democrats and Republicans. What campaign-finance reform has done is to take a commodity in which America rolls in ridiculous oversupply, money, and create an artificial shortage of it--and thus an artificial inflation of the influence and power of those who can mobilize it.



The wooing of these money mobilizers has, then, become one of the essential first steps of modern campaigning. The pursuit of Cheney moneyman Mel Sembler, the Florida developer and Bush-appointed ambassador to Australia, was a contest as avidly fought and as important as any early caucus or straw-poll beauty contest. (In the end Sembler threw himself behind Alexander.) In his remarkable book The United States of Ambition, Alan Ehrenhalt observes that the old mechanisms for screening candidates have collapsed, and that candidates--once nominated by parties--now nominate themselves. At the presidential level, at least, that isn't quite true: the party bosses may have vanished, but in their place we have the Rolodex men, and behind them the press.

Compare Alexander with another Republican presidential aspirant--Carroll Campbell, of South Carolina. Like Alexander, Campbell was twice elected governor of a traditionally Democratic southern state. Like Alexander's, Campbell's tenure was widely regarded as an immense success: he modernized South Carolina's antique government by shearing the powers of the state's largely unsupervised boards, agencies, and commissions and enhancing the more accountable office of the governor. He worked for education reform, kept the state's books in good order, and cut taxes. He deftly combined political conservatism with racial moderation. He even lured a car maker, BMW, to the state. When George Bush lost in 1992, Campbell, too, began to plan a run for the presidency. He believed that a win in the early South Carolina primary could propel a popular governor to national prominence. Campbell had lined up the support of financial contributors and some of his fellow governors. But as state after state brought its primary forward, Campbell's hopes faded.

"They changed the ball game," he says. "The whole ball game. We figured we'd probably be good for five or six million dollars. Under the old route I would have run in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and then gone into Little Tuesday. That was the old route: I had a chance to run, raise money as I went, and have a decent showing along the way.

"Now you've no time to raise money as you go. There's no time to do your mailings and get it back in and keep up the cash flow. You have to run in all the big states at the same time, which is an impossibility for a candidate who is not extremely well known or extremely well funded.

"I had a group of people in New Jersey and some in New York who were raising money. I had some people in Texas, and I had a good group in California. But they couldn't raise the huge amounts because of the [per-contributor] limitations. I had people who could have raised enough money or given individually if they could have given at a higher level. You're not raising money with a tablespoon; it's more like a teaspoon when it's compared with the amount of money you're going to spend."

Today Campbell gloomily occupies the presidency of the insurance industry's lobbying organization.

What's the difference between Alexander and Campbell? To a considerable extent it's Ted Welch, a former Republican national-finance chairman and Alexander's principal Rolodex man. Welch had success publishing Bibles, dictionaries, and cookbooks, and then heaped up a larger fortune with lucrative real-estate ventures in Nashville. He has known Alexander for nearly a quarter of a century, and began discussing a run for the presidency with him as early as 1982. Welch picked me up one Sunday evening at the Stouffer Hotel in Nashville--a hotel he built in a downtown complex he developed--dressed in an expensive blazer over a sport shirt. As we drove off, he picked up his car phone, telephoned the restaurant he'd chosen, and said with the guiltless gusto of the Sunbelt rich: "This is Ted Welch calling. Your landlord. Can we have a quiet booth at the back?"

Over a pizza he explained how his job is done. "I don't call strictly out of the blue. I'll have some reason to believe that he is either for or susceptible to being for Alexander. One of Lamar's main fund-raisers in Florida has never raised money before. Lamar taught her canoeing at an exclusive camp in Florida when Lamar was seventeen and this lady was thirteen. She happened to be a friend of mine to begin with. And she's become a very enthusiastic fund-raiser."

This reliance on friendships is typical of the Alexander campaign. Alexander's supporters seem not only to be uninterested in his message but to be actively disregarding it. A moderate as governor and Education Secretary (although he prefers the term "activist conservative"), since the summer of 1993 Alexander has been seeking the presidency as an ultra-Jeffersonian radical. "The principal threat to freedom abroad has collapsed," he says, "but the principal threat at home has grown more menacing. The evil empire in the Kremlin has been defeated, spreading freedom in its wake. But the government in Washington, D.C., has become an arrogant empire, spreading its tentacles into our everyday lives." To combat the arrogance of Washington, he has proposed radical reform of Congress: "Cut their pay and send them home. Cut in half the time Congress spends in Washington. Cut their pay in half. Take off the rules that prohibit their taking a real job, and let them work alongside the rest of us." He calls for a major devolution of responsibility from Washington to the states, ending the role of the federal government in welfare, crime control, and education.

Strong stuff. Yet the Republicans applauding it seem to be drawn almost exclusively from the ideological middle of the Republican Party. Tom Rath, Alexander's genial New Hampshire campaign chairman, voted for Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan in the 1976 New Hampshire primary and for Howard Baker in 1980, and worked for Bob Dole in 1988. Bill Cahill, Alexander's New Hampshire campaign director, was communications director for President Bush's New Hampshire primary campaign in 1988. David Wilson, one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee and an Alexander donor for many years, strongly favored Bush in 1980.

To be sure, when asked, Alexander can tick off the names of supporters who hail from more-conservative precincts. Indeed, his communications director last worked for Oliver North. But anyone who has hung around the conservative movement and the Republican Party need only walk into Alexander's campaign office on Nashville's West End Avenue to recognize instantly the atmosphere of Republican centrism: the attractive, well-groomed young volunteers, the avoidance of hard-edged issues, the way words like "process" and "consensus" trip off tongues. "Lamar Alexander is a Howard Baker protégé through and through," says his longtime friend M. Lee Smith, now the owner of a company that publishes legal newsletters. (Baker, of course, incarnated middle-of-the-road Republicanism.) "Lamar is not a hard-core conservative. He has adopted a lot more conservative rhetoric in this campaign, I guess in part because the country is moving in that direction and the party especially has."

Alexander himself avoids overtly ideological discourse. "I'm not running for senator, and I'm not running for think-tank president. I'm running for chief executive, and what you want in a chief executive to begin with is character and temperament and the ability to make executive decisions." Unfortunately for him, that's not what the secular and religious conservatives who form the only potential base of support for a challenge to Bob Dole want. They want some confidence that a candidate not only can make decisions but will make decisions congenial to them. And whether or not they feel that confidence depends on an elite that operates alongside the Rolodex men: the press.

In the past the press has mattered far more to Democratic candidates than to Republicans--in part because the Republican nominee was usually marked out so early, in part because Republicans have mistrusted the reporting of what they see as the overwhelmingly liberal media. A sympathetic press helped Bill Clinton to regain his lead after Paul Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Joe Klein, who wrote a cover story for New York magazine that is sometimes credited with attracting the city's big Democratic donors to Clinton, recalls that "it was just obvious" that Clinton was the best candidate in the Democratic field--which is, he hastily adds, as much a comment on that field as on Bill Clinton. But Clinton's superiority to Bob Kerrey and Paul Tsongas might not have been so obvious to voters who had not invested the time to learn of the former's flakiness and the latter's health troubles. The consensus on Clinton, Klein recalls, was the product of the reporting of journalists, the buzzing of party people and consultants, and the preferences of Democratic check writers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

Now there have emerged explicitly Republican media to do for that party the same sorting long done for Democrats by the tacitly Democratic networks and major metropolitan papers: magazines like The American Spectator, National Review, and the new Weekly Standard, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, and--maybe above all--Rush Limbaugh. When Alexander backers meet skepticism toward their claim that their candidate is the most conservative in the race, they fall back on a second argument: that he is "sufficiently" conservative. Should the Alexander campaign show signs of succeeding, the credibility of that claim among Republican primary voters will depend to quite an amazing extent on whether Limbaugh and the conservative press buy it.



Is this bad? Is it wrong that relatively small groups of people should have arrogated to themselves the task of promoting potential Presidents, as Ted Welch has done, or vetoing them, as the press has the power to do? The rhetoric of American democracy insists that it is wrong. Even Lamar Alexander--whose candidacy exists only and entirely because of his skill at exciting the enthusiasm of Republican organizers--takes pains to present himself as an opponent of elites. Hence the trademark red-and-black-checked shirt.

But let's entertain for a moment a heretical thought. If not for the Ted Welches, how could American democracy work? This is an enormous country, and virtually everybody in it has work to do and children to raise. Once upon a time the machinery of the two great political parties sorted through the potential candidates. But that machinery rusted away long ago. All that remains is the candidates themselves, a hundred million voters unwilling to contribute very much more to the political process than their ballot on Election Day, and, interceding between them, some tens of thousands of donors, party activists, political professionals, and journalists. Some utopian political theorists imagine that if it were not for this last group, American democracy would revert to the intensely participatory politics of the earliest days of the Republic. Fat chance. In an era of immense wealth and instant communications, a politics somehow liberated from the political class--if such a thing can be imagined at all--would resemble the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and the Ross Perot campaign of 1992: ad hoc mass movements in the service of charismatic leaders.

As a country imbued with a deep ethic of social equality, America has never reconciled itself to the existence of elites. Elites that frankly acknowledge their own existence and attempt to justify their own position--the Federalist leaders of the 1780s, the new industrial millionaires of the turn of the century--have without exception brought retribution crashing down upon their heads. But the country's anti-elitism has never succeeded in replacing elites with direct popular government, both for the reason identified by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, two centuries ago--the country is too big--and for the reason frankly spelled out by Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s: the job is too difficult.

Instead, American anti-elitism has again and again replaced explicit elites with disguised ones. Ambitious state-chartered bankers and hungry land speculators in New York exploited anti-elitist feeling to topple the too restrictive Bank of the United States in the 1830s; the Harvard-educated New Dealers appealed to the same emotion to expand the power of people like themselves over the American economy. The populist electoral reforms of the 1960s and 1970s replicated the inevitable pattern. The party to make and unmake presidential candidates has migrated from ward bosses in derby hats and checked suits to local business leaders who can fill a hotel ballroom with friends with checkbooks.

Some may be tempted to adventure yet another round of political reform: full public funding of campaigns or free television advertising. But somebody will still have to decide whether Robert Dornan and Lenora Fulani get money and free television, and how much, and how much Bob Dole and Bill Clinton get. The problem of unequal impact on the political system--if it is a problem at all--is simply an ineradicable one.

Maybe there's another way to think about this. Maybe we should be worrying less about the existence of elites and more about their quality, less about their excess of money and more about their deficiencies of public spirit. Maybe we should worry that American society's primordial hostility to elites, its determination to force those elites to disguise themselves and deny their inevitable influence, nourishes their irresponsibility and stunts their sense of public obligation. Maybe we should accept as inevitable that those who care the most about politics can most effectively sway the political system, and should worry instead that this political elite itself is so easily swayed by charm and a home-state accent.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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