After Trump vs. Clinton, party insiders should get more say in picking a nominee who can win.
By Jason L. Riley
The Wall Street Journal
November 2, 2016
The temptation to tinker with a presidential selection process that has produced the two most unpopular nominees in memory will be significant. If Republican and Democratic officials choose to go that route after this campaign season is behind us, what are the options?
The nomination turmoil on display this year has been a long time coming and is more evidence of the weakened state of the major political parties. A century ago Progressive governors like California’s Hiram Johnson and Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette began advocating for more direct democracy. They targeted the patronage and corruption linked to urban boss politics; instituted ballot initiatives that allowed voters to circumvent state legislators; and favored primary elections over nominating conventions in an effort to make the process more transparent.
Some reforms from that era were adopted more readily than others, but a tipping point occurred in 1968 at the Democratic convention, when Mayor Richard Daley, who headed Chicago’s political machine, passed over Eugene McCarthy, who had won the most primary votes, and delivered the presidential nomination to Hubert Humphrey,who had not even entered a single primary.
After Humphrey lost the general election to Richard Nixon, Democrats gave in to pressure to change the rules so that party leaders would no longer be able to hand-pick convention delegates. The party also required states to choose delegates through primary elections or caucuses.
But party leaders and elected officials didn’t like the extent to which the reforms cut them out of the nominating process, and in subsequent decades the rules were altered again to create so-called superdelegates—insiders who play an outsized role in selecting the nominee. Hillary Clinton easily beat out Bernie Sanders this year among superdelegates, who were reluctant to hand over the Democratic nomination to someone they deemed unelectable and who in any case was a registered independent who switched his party affiliation to Democrat shortly before the New Hampshire primary.
Mr. Sanders and his supporters pushed hard for changing the superdelegate rules after he lost the nomination, but in July the party voted to keep them in place with some modifications going forward. The determination—not unreasonable—was that superdelegates helped the Democratic Party police the nomination process in a way that the Republican Party failed.
Reports that the GOP as we know it is dead may be premature, but it’s clear that the party is in worse shape than its rival. “Astonishingly, the 2016 Republican presidential race has been dominated by a candidate who is not, in any meaningful sense, a Republican,” wrote Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution in the Atlantic magazine over the summer. “The second-place candidate, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, built his brand tearing down his party’s [brand]: slurring the Senate Republican leader, railing against the Republican establishment, and closing the government as a career move.”
Mr. Rauch, who described Messrs. Sanders, Cruz and Trump as “political sociopaths—meaning not that they are crazy, but that they don’t care what other politicians think about their behavior and they don’t need to care,” called for both parties to reform in ways that make nomination procedures less democratic by giving insiders a bigger role. Let parties coordinate with candidates. Lift limits on donations to the parties so that the money isn’t diverted to less-accountable outside groups. Force potential candidates to get permission to run as a Democrat or Republican from elected officials who can vet them.
Mr. Rauch’s criticisms echo those made in the 1970s by leading political scientists like James Ceaser, who argued that Progressive Era reforms in practice undermined a party selection process that can “minimize the harmful results of the pursuit of power by ambitious contenders, help establish the proper kind of presidential leadership and proper scope of executive power, help secure a competent executive, ensure a legitimate accession, and provide for the proper degree of choice and change.”
In some cases, efforts to reduce corruption and further democratize the process have also weakened the influence of party leaders in ways that made coordination, accountability and party unity much more difficult. That’s a trade-off that ought to at least be acknowledged. There’s no need or desire to return to the venal machine politics of New York’s Tammany Hall, where Boss Tweed once said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”
But the reality is that politics is about organization, and political insiders know how to organize, how to turn out the vote, and how to pick capable candidates who are less likely to polarize and more likely to win.
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