The first Democratic primary election debate is set for June 26 and 27 in Miami – ten candidates per event. Five more debates – more accurately scrums, as in rugby – are scheduled monthly from July into December. In February there are Democratic and Republican caucuses and primaries in six states beginning with Iowa on the 3rd. Among the highlights in March is “Super Tuesday,” March 3, with primaries in 14 states and American Samoa.
Isn’t the suspense terrible?
The prospect of another presidential primary season – three dozen states, an 18-month media frenzy – are hardly cause for general joy.
But as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson used to say, let’s look at the record.
The record isn’t so hot. In those pre-Nixon good old days, the presidential primary was a nothing event. A party’s candidate ultimately was picked by state conventions and caucuses managed by party bosses working in back rooms, smoke-filled and often liquor-fueled. The party faithful, from precinct workers through county leaders and state chairmen, became delegates to the state and national conventions.
The ultimate nomination of candidate and running mate was pre-ordained, ceremonial. But there were occasional challenges, and the brawling could leave bruises that were long to heal. The Kennedy nomination in 1960, Goldwater in ’64, and McGovern ’72 come to mind. Reagan’s quest for the Republican nomination, which lasted 14 years until 1980, is a special study in persistence, and resentment; in 1976 it left deep wounds in Kansas.
After the Democrats’ McGovern reforms – almost anyone, it seemed, could be a delegate – the party’s primary was offered as democracy in the raw with Byzantine rules and strictures. The parties have followed along, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, Greens and others, until the candidate listings often rival the chart of an NCAA tournament bracket. This year’s Democratic lineup of 24 candidates, with others in the wings, is no mark for progress.
In the end, old way or new, what do we see?
The Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960 offered a clearer choice than most elections. But in that campaign, the millions of Adlai Stevenson fans were so appalled that their slogan became, “I’ll sit this one out.” Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, wrote a piece titled “Kennedy or Nixon: Does it Make a Difference?” That question, incidentally, has been asked in almost every election since.
Four years later, in 1964, the dean of Washington National Cathedral moaned that the nation had a choice between “a kook and a crook.” Four years after that we were offered such stalwarts as Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace – a combination that prompted many peaceniks and first-time voters to write in “Eldredge (sic) Cleaver” as their candidate.
Then we had McGovern vs. Nixon. That was such a bum choice that the politicians said the system must be reformed. It was reformed, and we got Carter vs. Ford.
Of course the system doesn’t work. In recent years we’ve had Reagan and Mondale, Bush and Dukakis, Bob Dole, another Bush, Clinton, Kerry, Romney and more recently the travesty of Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump. And sprinkled among them from one election to the next were such luminaries as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Steve Forbes.
A system that can eliminate people of the stature of Howard Baker, Richard Lugar, Daniel Moynihan, John Anderson and, probably, Howard Dean before a convention even meets is pathetic, even dark.
And a plan that consigns the small states such as Kansas to electoral insignificance is a stain on the republic.
Any system that reduces our choice to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be junked.
But that’s the kind of thing we said when Tom Dewey took on Harry Truman. And it’s likely what voters said when James Monroe faced Rufus King in 1816.
What will we say in 2020? Surprises can happen, even pleasant ones.