A Better Way?

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Party bosses of the 1800s and early 1900s have been maligned for promoting corruption in government.  But they may be more deserving of credit than they normally receive for nominating competent—if not always inspiring—presidential candidates.  And the results of their involvement in the pre-1972 presidential nominating processes of both parties suggest that giving a greater say to party and partisan governmental leaders today may help improve the quality of presidential nominees, and therefore presidents, in the future.

Last week I noted that Progressive political reformers considered Republican and Democratic party leaders—or ”bosses”—to be irredeemably corrupt.  Therefore the Progressives pushed for the adoption of a variety of reforms—budgeting, civil service, nonpartisan local elections, and especially primaries—to make government more honest, efficient, and economical.  But primaries especially increased the costs of elections and made contesting them difficult to all but a few politicians with access to the vast financial resources for victory.   And those with the most access to money were not always the best possible candidates to win their nominations.

Despite the criticisms of party bosses for fostering governmental corruption, they have defenders who argue that party bosses frequently, if not always, produced good candidates for up-ballot offices, especially the presidency.  In general, goes the argument, party bosses chose presidential candidates who tended to be moderate, competent, and personally honest.

This is not to say that the party bosses were actually advocates of “good government” and therefore wanted to elect men who would be good presidents. The bosses considered the main duties of the president to be the distribution of patronage and preferments:  The President was supposed to appoint mainly party loyalists to jobs and award party supporters with contracts to supply goods and services to the government.  

But before a president could dispense patronage and preferments he had to be elected, and party bosses knew that under most circumstances the voting public would select a moderate over an extremist, someone with a proven record of competence over someone who lacked such a record, and someone with a reputation for honesty over someone who lacked such a reputation.  Hence they used their influence over Republican and Democratic national nominating conventions to secure the nominations of men considered the most electable by these standards.

The system did not always produce good presidents.  Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, and Ulysses S. Grant—all choices of the bosses—have normally been considered among our worst presidents by historians and political scientists specializing in the presidency.

But the system did produce a number of presidents justifiably considered personally incorruptible and reasonably competent, including Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Calvin Coolidge.  And the system also gave us Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, who used primaries to demonstrate his electability to the Democratic party bosses who otherwise thought he was too young, too inexperienced, and—above all—a Roman Catholic.

There is, of course, no possibility that primaries will be abolished, that the other Progressive reforms will be repealed, and that we’ll revert to boss-dominated party government.  But reforms in the Democratic Party suggest a way by which party and governmental leaders could be given a greater say in the nomination of presidential candidates.

As noted last week, Democratic reforms implanted after the 1968 presidential election produced a system in which the only realistic path to a presidential nomination was through a crazy quilt of primaries and caucuses.  By the early 1980s Democratic leaders were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the new system they had created.  They noted that their system had facilitated the nominations of two “outsider” standard bearers—George McGovern, who was defeated in one of the greatest landslides in 1972, and Jimmy Carter, elected by a razor-thin margin in 1976, only to be defeated overwhelmingly in 1980.  Strategists believed they could stand a better chance of winning the White House if they nominated more “establishment” candidates.  To that end, the Democratic National Committee created a new class of “superdelegates” comprising about 15% of the total number of delegates to Democratic national conventions and to consist of government and party officials who by virtue of their offices would automatically become delegates with the freedom to support or oppose whomever they wanted, without regard to primary election results.  The idea was that the superdelegates would, like the bosses of old, emphasize electability in the selection of Democratic presidential nominees, and thereby serve as a counterweight to regular delegates pledged to specific candidates as dictated y primary election results, regardless of actual suitability for the presidency.

At first, the new system seemed not to work as intended.  In 1984 Walter Mondale, the first Democrat to be nominated under the new system, lost his bid for the presidency in a landslide almost as disastrous as that of 1972.  But Michael Dukakis, while losing the 1988 presidential election nonetheless did better than Mondale.  And since 1992 the Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one presidential election.

So perhaps the Democrats might be wise to expand their use of superdelegates and the Republicans may want to consider adopting a similar system.  If enough leaders in each party emphasize electability based on the moderation, competence, and personal honesty of presidential candidates we may be able to reduce the chances of ideologues, incompetents, and crooks gaining access to the Oval Office.  The chances for reform may not be great, but given the alternatives, the effort should be made.

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.

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