MATTHEWS: It’s a hell of a way to pick a president

It began with the best of intentions. The voters – not the political bosses in the smoke-filled backrooms – would pick a party’s presidential nominee. And, for a time, it worked.

Party voter and fundraising lists were the lifeblood of candidates’ campaigns. Candidates mostly hewed to the party’s policy lines. If there were any differences, they were mostly stylistic as candidates fought over party activists’ hearts and minds.

And then along came talk radio, which then gave way to cable news, which was then eclipsed by the Internet, which then spawned social media. Today, these mediums comprise a four-headed hydra monster devouring political parties.

Candidates no longer need parties. They simply need a message (the angrier, the better), a savvy online strategy, and a bank account that is either self-funded or replenished by the small donations of fervent followers.

Four years ago, it was Donald Trump who hijacked the Republican Party. Today it is Bernie Sanders who may well be on the cusp of taking over the Democratic Party.Both Trump and Sanders give voice to the populist grievances of many on the political fringes. But, as Trump has convincingly demonstrated, once populists get their candidate nominated resistance by the establishment becomes futile.

This is dangerous to the long-term health of our democracy.Ideally, political parties provide stability by offering voters a choice and reconciling the conflicting interests in society. In our current ‘age of disruption’ these parties are smoldering shells of what they once were. And within these ruins lies the charred remains of consensus and compromise.

American politics can’t go on like this. There has to be a better way to nominate our presidents. History provides us some guidance. Looking at the results in retrospect, it’s hard to argue with what the smoke-filled backrooms gave us.

Yes, party bosses put forward the hapless Warren G. Harding in 1920. But they also produced presidents Lincoln, Truman, and Eisenhower, to name a few. On balance it’s not a bad track record.

As America careened toward civil war in 1860, Republican Party bosses turned to Abraham Lincoln in no small measure because they could count votes. They believed Lincoln’s position on preserving the union and his biography would have the broadest appeal in the decisive battleground states of Indiana and Pennsylvania.

In 1944, with FDR’s health deteriorating, Democratic bosses knew they were selecting the next president in their choice of a vice president. Party leaders had deep and legitimate concerns incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace was ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of then-certain victory in World War II. They turned to second-term Missouri Senator Harry S Truman, giving him the vice-presidential nomination out of confidence he was capable of being president and because he could attract votes in the Farm Belt.

Eight years later, in July 1952, Republican bosses feared the isolationist views of conservative Ohio Senator Robert Taft were out-of-step with the realities of the Cold War and would prove costly in the general election. So, they recruited a proven winner – General Dwight Eisenhower. The hearts of most convention delegates were with Taft but their votes followed their heads, which were filled with persistent doubts about Taft’s electability. Eisenhower’s election did more than end the Republicans’ 20-year White House drought, it had the long-term effect of preserving the centrist consensus within the two-party system.

Granted, times have changed. The modern primary system has given voice to those long locked out of the backrooms, most notably, women and minorities. But this system is meeting its demise at the hands of Internet trolls, fake news, and foreign-manufactured propaganda.

It is time for a new way to select our presidential nominees. And, while the following nominating system has about as much a chance as a Kardashian embracing modesty, it is worthy of consideration by both parties.

  • First, eliminate all party caucuses. They’re cumbersome and undemocratic.
  • Second, hold primaries in all 50 states. Ideally, hold regional primaries on the first Tuesday of every month, starting in February and concluding in June. Primaries would only be preferential, measuring candidates’ popularity and appeal to coalitions of voters.
  • Third, considering their state’s primary’s results, state conventions would select delegates to the national convention, which would comprise 40 to 45 percent of the total number of national convention delegates.
  • Finally, empower the party’s elected leaders. Allocate the remaining 55 to 60 percent of national convention delegate seats to “super-delegates” – sitting members of Congress, governors, national committee members, state party chairs and vice-chairs, state legislative caucus leaders, former presidents and vice presidents and other party dignitaries.

Critics of such a system are right to ask if Barack Obama could have been nominated. The answer is: he was. It was super-delegates who put Obama over the top in 2008 after he demonstrated in the Iowa caucuses he could win over white voters and then went on to assemble a broad-based coalition throughout the 2008 primaries. This was not too dissimilar to when many party leaders threw their support to Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy after mostly Protestant voters delivered him victories in the 1960 Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries.

While imperfect, such a new system would strengthen parties by putting a premium on competence, experience, and electability. It would provide protections against hostile takeovers driven by populist rage on the margins.Of course, giving power back to the much maligned ‘party establishment’ is about as popular right now as Coronavirus. So, the current nominating system will stay in place for the foreseeable future.

It’s a hell of a way to pick the Leader of the Free World – with emphasis on the word, ‘hell.’

Jason Matthews