Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fix the presidential nomination system

This week and the next, the two dominant political parties will nominate the least popular major-party nominees in modern political history. Many Republican leaders are appalled that their party's nomination has been hijacked (legally and within the rules but hijacked nonetheless) by a man with no electoral experience and no real allegiance to his party's principles and viewpoint. Democrats next week will nominate Hillary Clinton, who is despised by many Americans and distrusted by a majority of the electorate.

A majority of Americans wish they had some other options on election day.

Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps it's time to reconsider the steady shift from party elites making the rules and picking the nominees to a series of party primaries illustrated by numerous nationally televised candidate "debates." This new system was born out of efforts to correct the excesses within both parties in the 1960s. Republicans wanted to avoid another debacle like the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson, one of the least likable candidates of the century, swamped the GOP's Barry Goldwater in the most one-sided election in modern history. Democrats wanted to involve the masses and avoid the violent demonstrations that wrecked the 1968 Chicago convention and handed the election to Richard Nixon.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could win the nomination without even entering a party primary. Most delegate votes were decided by party officials, not by rank-and-file voters. Reforms enacted for the 1972 election reversed that. Primaries would determine the party nomination, so the Democrats got George McGovern, a one-issue candidate who motivated primary voters to his cause but had little appeal in the general election.

Then came the debates. Kennedy and Nixon held the first presidential debates in 1960, then the format was abandoned for several years. Only in the 1980s did candidate debates become standard fare. Ronald Reagan thrived in the debates while his opponents stumbled. Voters swooned. The precedent was set.

This year's crop of 17 GOP candidates made candidate debates a three-ring circus, not a debate; nevertheless, the candidates and the networks promoted the events, and voters watched. The staged free-for-alls handed the party a leading candidate who was not informed on major national and international issues and whose debate style was insults, bombast and bragging.

On the Democratic side, potential candidates declined to take on Clinton, the presumptive party nominee since 2009. But Clinton was a weaker nominee than potential challengers realized. Only Bernie Sanders, a socialist with little allegiance to the Democratic Party, was willing to reveal Clinton as an unlikable and untrustworthy candidate.

No matter how the general election turns out, both parties should be willing to rethink the nomination process. There has to be a better way. Primaries that begin nearly two years before the election are not useful, especially when the first primaries are in states with demographics unlike the nation at large. Debates among a dozen or more candidates aren't helpful in determining who is best qualified to run the country, especially when questions to candidates are more focused on personal traits or foibles than national issues. The parties should retake possession of the debates. They should find a better way to hold primaries. A single, nationwide primary has been suggested. That might help. Primaries that go on week after week for more than a year are guaranteed to put short-attention-span voters to sleep.

This election year may have to be a write-off, but let's fix this mess before the next presidential election.

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