Here’s a scary thought: Next week, the Republican National Convention will meet to nominate Donald Trump for President of the United States.
Here’s a second scary thought: Later this month the Democratic National Convention will nominate Hillary Clinton for President too.
Think of that: Out of more than three hundred million Americans, these are the best the parties can offer us?
No doubt there are millions of Americans who enthusiastically support, or at least tolerate, Trump and Clinton as presidential candidates. Elsewise they would never have become their respective parties’ presumptive presidential nominees.
But few Americans genuinely trust Hillary Clinton. She’s flip-flopped on her positions on several subjects—international trade, the Keystone Pipeline—and moved to the left to try to outbid Bernie Sanders in their mutual quest to see who can be the more irresponsible leftist. And while FBI Director Comey recommended against indicting her for mishandling America’s national security secrets, he has produced credible evidence that she was both extremely careless in her conduct, and dishonest in her cover up.
And as for Donald Trump—what could one possibly say now that hasn’t already been said—that he’s exploited racial, misogynistic, and xenophobic prejudices to win the GOP nomination? That he’s yet to produce evidence that he has any core conservative principles? That he’s squandered weeks in failing to develop effective campaign strategies, tactics, staff, or finances? All too true, yet nobody in a position of leadership in the GOP seems able or willing to do anything about the mess Trump has made.
How did these two even get close to a major party presidential nomination?
Up until the 1970s leaders in both parties had far more say in the selection of presidential nominees, mainly through their ability to dominate state party organizations and conventions and thereby help determine whom state parties would send as delegates to the national conventions, and whom they would support. This system produced some pretty poor presidents—Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, and Warren G. Harding are normally ranked by scholars as among the worst ever to occupy the White House. Yet this system also produced estimable, if not gifted presidents—Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge—and sometimes even great presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy.
In essence, the party leaders acted as gatekeepers to the presidency. They knew the American people in general elections preferred moderate, competent and honest candidates over those perceived as extremists, incompetents or crooks. So party leaders usually backed candidates with those characteristics since they thought those were the most electable.
This began to change in the 1970s with the rise of presidential primaries. Actually, the first presidential primaries were adopted in 1912 at the behest of followers of former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose efforts to defeat President William Howard Taft for renomination were stymied by the party leaders’ support of Taft. Roosevelt believed that winning delegates in primaries would allow him to do an end run around Taft’s supporters in the GOP leadership. The strategy failed because there were not enough primaries electing enough delegates to allow Roosevelt to overcome Taft’s advantage, and as late as 1968 it was possible for a presidential candidate, as Hubert Humphrey showed, to win a majority of delegates to a national convention without entering or winning a single primary, provided he won the support of enough party leaders in enough states without primaries.
But demands in the Democratic Party for greater democracy in the process for selecting presidential nominees caused it to adopt rules that said that beginning in 1972 state delegations to the Democratic National Convention would have to include supporters of all candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in proportion to their relative strength among Democratic voters, as well as representative of the various Democratic voting blocs—women, racial and ethnic minorities, and so forth. State Democratic parties, to make sure they complied with national party rules, prodded state legislatures to adopt more primaries and caucuses to help determine public opinion and select delegates, and the legislatures obliged by creating them for both Democrats and Republicans as well.
Supporters of primaries and caucuses say that using them to select delegates to the national nominating conventions makes the presidential nomination process more fair, open, and democratic. And the primaries have produced Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as well as worthy candidates such as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
Yet it also increases the possibility that the voters, out of anger or ignorance, will select delegates through primaries and caucuses pledged to support candidate whom party leaders would never, in an earlier era, permit to be nominated. Those who actually vote in primary elections tend to be more ideological, more angry, and more willing to vent their emotions in voting. They are more willing to support candidates much more liberal or much more conservative, or simply much more demagogic than those who vote in general elections are likely to support. Thus the use of primaries increases the probability that one or the other major party will nominate an extremist or a demagogue who triumphed in the primaries yet might be unable to win a general election.
Certainly party leaders, if they had the power, would never have let Trump near a Republican nomination; rather, he would have been considered too inexperienced, too long a liberal Democrat, to mercurial, and too obnoxious to be the GOP standard bearer. And in an earlier age, Democratic bosses might well have been too leery of either Clinton, fearing distracting scandals in their lives, and looking for candidates with less personal baggage. In the case of Hillary, they might also have been more concerned with her race to the left.
Yet the day of the party leaders, or bosses, or whatever, is past. We, the people, have taken away, or at least reduced their power, to prevent attractive demagogues, con artists, crooks, and incompetents, from triumphing in the primaries and making serious bids in general elections, where they can either lead their parties to disaster or, if elected, lead the country to disaster.
If you’re happy with your parties’ presidential nominees, fine. But if you’re not, remember that the primaries were adopted by those who wanted more democracy in the nominating process, and that you should always be careful of what you want—you may get it.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.