photo courtesy Denise Cross Photography
With Donald Trump still leading the field of Republican presidential hopefuls, and Sen. Bernie Sanders gaining ground on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, imagine - just for a minute - the crazy situation that would result if these two gentlemen landed at the top of their respective tickets:
The Republican nominee would be someone whose Republicanism is, at best, a recent discovery. And the Democratic candidate would be someone who does not call himself a Democrat.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic national party chair, seems to be too busy trying to protect Clinton from her rivals’ demands for more primary-season debates to focus on the greater threat that a Sanders candidacy would present to her party. But her GOP counterpart, Reince Priebus, is clearly paying more attention.
The point of having political parties is to gather generally like-minded candidates under a common banner in order to win elections. But if winning elections is the goal, nobody would ever choose presidential nominees under a system like the one we now have. Our system has evolved in a way that pushes both parties to their ideological extremes, and even beyond.
The problem - the pair of problems, really - is with our primaries. Problem number one is that the early primaries are in tiny and generally irrelevant states like Iowa (its caucuses are the same as primaries, for purposes of this discussion), New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. This gives a tiny fraction of U.S. citizens, the ones in those states who belong to each party and are committed to voting in the primaries, a dramatically exaggerated influence in choosing nominees and shaping the priorities on which they run.
Consider Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. At home, he governs as a mainstream, pro-business Republican, giving little emphasis to social issues. The hardline social positions of Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers pushed him so far outside his political comfort zone that his once-promising candidacy has already imploded. At the same time, Iowa’s unrepresentative sample of Republicans draws unelectable prospects like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum into the race, where they serve the other side’s interests by damaging the GOP brand in states that will be crucial in the general election.
Similarly, a candidate like Vermont’s Sanders, who has an advantage in next-door New Hampshire, pushes the more mainstream Clinton into positions such as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which is apt to hurt her with blue-collar workers in big states like Ohio and Pennsylvania next year, assuming she survives the primaries.
If we are going to select candidates via primaries, the logical way to do it - if the parties really want to win - is the schedule those primaries in a way that gives the greatest sway to the biggest swing states, places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia.
But parties don’t really control their primary schedules; state legislators do. New Hampshire even has a law that says it will hold its primary at least one week before that of any other state. So the parties can move their calendars any way they want; New Hampshire doesn’t care. The state isn’t in the business of winning elections. It is in the business of maximizing New Hampshire’s national influence, regardless of the consequences in the Granite State or anywhere else.
The second problem, then, is the primary system itself. By giving outsized influence in delegate selection to each party’s “base,” meaning its most extreme ideological components, primaries drive our politics away from the centrist tendencies that have served the country well for generations. When voters complain to pollsters that they want lawmakers to work together across party lines, someone ought to explain that voters only have themselves to blame. Years ago there were some liberal Republicans and some conservative Democrats, and there was a decent margin of overlap between the parties. These days that overlap is so far gone that a non-Democrat like Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is seen by many Democrats as more of a Democrat than the actual Democrats in the race.
And Trump, who hews to no identifiable political ideology at all, is at least for now the first choice of a healthy slice of Republican voters who don’t seem to think more than one dozen other Republican candidates are Republican enough to suit them.
As I said, this is crazy.
The craziest thing of all is that in order to bring more compromise and cooperation back to our democracy, we might have to make the nominating system less democratic by limiting the influence of primary voters. The parties could, for example, do away with the idea that delegates to national conventions would be bound to a specific candidate. They might also greatly increase the proportion of elected officials and other party leaders who are automatically given votes at those conventions, as so-called super delegates.
This would bring a lot of horse-trading and ticket-balancing back to the nominating process. It would recreate the old smoke-filled rooms, minus the smoke, which nowadays is banned pretty much everywhere by clean indoor air ordinances. Conventions would stop being mere coronations and would, in fact, be working meetings where nominees were chosen with an eye toward who could best represent a party in an election. The process would be messy and unappealing, but the product could well be better.
The party bases would hate this idea, especially in those self-important small states. But the people who tell pollsters they want more cooperation, moderation and deliberation in our government ought to approve wholeheartedly. Too much democracy can be pretty unhealthy for democracy.