Florida’s decision to move its Republican primary forward to January 31 is emblematic of what is wrong with the presidential nomination process. As I argue in The Great Liberal Death Wish, the dismal leadership we’ve seen in recent decades at the presidential level owes much to the media circus that the primaries have become and to the lamentable fact that the primaries and their silly TV “debates” have replaced the party conventions as the chief vehicles for nomination.
The result has been a series of nominees with little or no experience for the job and whose chief claim to fame is novelty and/or campaign (TV performance) skills. In Britain a politician who has served only two years in the House of Commons would be laughed at if he declared for the prime minister’s post. Yet Barack Obama had but two years in Congress when he announced his presidential candidacy and Michele Bachmann has but four years this time around.
Poorly prepared, self-nominated candidates thrive in the TV talent show atmosphere that the nominating process has become. Relatively small numbers of Democrats and Republicans actually turn out in the primaries and this has allowed marginal figures in the respective parties (Barry Goldwater, Jimmy Carter) to win nominations. The more the primaries are bunched together at the beginning of the year, the less time the public has to seriously weigh the merits of the respective candidates.
Secretaries of state of the various states have called for something like a time-zone primary system, spaced out over several months, with geographical areas voting together. That makes a lot of sense as it would do away with the utter foolishness of putting so much stake in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Florida’s rash act (which should be punished by the national Republican Party) will simply inspire Iowa, New Hampshire and other states to push their primaries up even earlier, perhaps just after Christmas.
In Britain, the prime minister has to be the leader of his or her party — a person with years of experience in parliament and in party government. Our habit of promoting amateurs has given us one incompetent president after another. Electing Barack Obama CEO of the United States government was akin to hiring a high school dropout to be a brain surgeon. Our political parties have no leaders, no leadership councils, no real spokespersons and in recent decades, very little role in picking their presidential nominees. Public speaking, performing and campaigning (which both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama never stopped doing, even after getting elected) have replaced governing skills and professional political leadership — and it shows.
Our nation will soon face grave challenges because of the failures of presidential leadership in recent decades. The worst of the world’s criminal dictators are getting nuclear weapons, unhindered by the democracies — and Vladimir Putin is returning to power in Russia.
Smoke-filled rooms and back-door deals may have played a part in the nominating conventions of the past. But back then, the parties actually chose leaders as candidates at the conventions. The present system, exacerbated by earlier and earlier primaries, is a recipe for failed leadership. The primaries should be downgraded (fewer delegates available to winners) and spaced more widely apart. It is not too late to do that, but it will require strong leadership by someone or some group in both parties.
James Delmont is a widely published journalist and college teacher with a PhD in history. He has recently finished a book, The Great Liberal Death Wish.