Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bring back the smoke filled rooms. The silly season of presidential primaries is choking us...

We are almost exactly a year away from the national conventions of the Republican and Democrat parties but the silly season is already in full swing.

From Michelle Bachmann’s warnings about earthquakes and hurricanes to Ron Paul's call to dismantle FEMA in the midst of a national disaster, to Rick Perry’s love affair with America, silliness rules the primary season.

What we need is a return to the smoke-filled rooms of yore. Both parties, or what's left of them.

I'm not kidding.

Smoke-filled rooms became four letter words in the tumult of the late 1960s. Before Chicago Mayor Richard Daley gave them the off-color reputation of certain rooms in houses of ill repute they were where the movers and shakers -- the stalwarts -- of political parties gathered to sort through potential nominees. They were far from perfect, but at least their impulses pointed in the right direction.

The party faithful -- I like to think of them smoking Mississippi River Crooks cigars -- had good reason to choose wisely. Their political futures depended on it. If they chose a loser, the spoils went elsewhere. They were empowered with choosing a candidate who -- first and foremost -- stood a chance of winning.

And not winning just an Iowa straw poll, or just Iowa, for that matter, or even just the Midwest, or just among farmers, or union folks. They knew how many votes it would take to win the presidency and where those votes would come from, and -- generally -- as an act of self-preservation they chose candidates with the best chance of capturing those votes.

To be sure losing coalitions formed and losing candidates accumulated backers in those smoky rooms. And sometimes, as Mark Hanna once said,” there ain't a first rater or in the bunch.” But, by necessity, their view was broad and mostly toward the middle -- as middle as possible in each particular season.

But the debacle that was the 1968 conventions paved the way for a more democratic impulse. Of course it is difficult to argue against a democratic impulse.

So, in 1972, the McGovern Commission rewrote the rules for the Democrat Party and the Republicans followed suit. All things democratic were in order.

The math is simple: before 1972, three=fourths of the delegates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms; after 1972, three-fourths were chosen in primaries. Today the percentage is even higher.

And that's a prime example of a good idea gone bad. Collateral damage included:

  • · A greater need for greater and greater amounts of money. We all know where that led.
  • · By necessity campaigning had to be done on television. How else can you run in five states in five days? This meant, again, more money, and it also meant more attractive candidates prevailed. In other words, if you want to be president today, you've got to be a looker.
  • · Candidates were not forced to be generalists, to appeal to the middle of the country. They could capture the nomination in small bites by wooing smaller and smaller interest groups. But they were in grave danger when they took actual positions on issues. It's one thing to say you are in favor of smaller government. That plays well in New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida, Texas, and California. But if you say, as Gov. Rick Perry said, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, you have doomed your candidacy in Florida, no matter how well that notion plays in the suburbs of Dallas. So, successful candidates learn how to campaign without saying anything. At least they learn how to campaign without saying anything significant. They don't take positions on issues. They make personal assertions about what they believe and who they are. Ultimately, if they are successful, they get elected and no one knows what they stand for, or worse, what they intend to do. To the country. To you and I.
  • · Appealing to small interest groups means more fringe candidates emerge. They emerge because it may only take 10% or 15% of the electorate to make a good showing in some primary states, if a large number of candidates are still in the race. They may be able to woo ardent supporters to a particular position in, say, Iowa, or New Hampshire, or Florida, and hope the momentum will carry them into the general election. But they usually fall by the wayside, tons of money and television time and voter angst wasted.
  • · Heaven help us if they make it into the general election.
  • · Even so, many of the candidates who make it into the general election, are unelectable. Their appeal is to too small. So once they've sewn up the primary season they try to move to the middle. And that move brings fire from the media, because inconsistency is one of the main things the media looks for. It's easy to see and it's easy to write about.
  • · So a candidate like a Barack Obama presents himself as a liberal to win the nomination in the Democrat party then immediately begins moving to the middle. And as president, he lives in the middle. His voters are left feeling cheated, and they should feel cheated. After all, the wars he swore he would end have continued. The health system he swore to reform isn't reformed. The influence of big corporate money isn't diminished. Oil Independence hasn't arrived. And no child left behind – or, as teachers like to say, no teacher left with a behind -- continues to make high-stakes testing the point of education.
  • · More fringe candidates make it less likely parties will nominate contenders who could appeal to a broad base of Americans. This means the governing cycle, as opposed to the electoral cycle, will leave most of the people feeling impotent as participants in the process.
  • · The power of political parties will be further eroded. When the political party is powerless, the press becomes dominant. But the press is ill-equipped to fill the role of the political party. It's like bringing the centerfielder in to pitch. The point of political parties is to pull people together, to find their common ground, to find out which issues unite rather than divide them, to make nice, to build coalitions of different kinds of people. The role of the press is exactly the opposite. The press looks for disharmony where the party looked for harmony. The role of the press is to find those places where people disagree, to identify the places that go bump in the night.

And, in this silly season, everything goes bump in the night. Although it gives the press something to do, and it keeps the rooms smoke-free, the republic suffers.


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