Thursday, August 18, 2011

Smoke Filled Rooms and Reform

Regarding my post about parties and presidential nominations earlier today, commenter Bajsa responded:
I wish the parties would just go back to choosing their nominees in smoke filled rooms so the nominating process wouldn't have to be so visible for 2 years out of a four year term, especially if the parties are choosing their nominees anyway.

Maybe not so many "great stories" but I don't see how any of this helps the governing side of things.
It's a good question. The original McGovern-Fraser committee intention back when the system was being reformed was to meaningful and timely participation, with "timely" being defined eventually as having delegates chosen in the election year, not before. That's obviously not how the system has evolved. Lots of very important decisions have already been made on the Republican side, some of them months ago already, and we're still more than a year out from the election.

What I'd say in defense of the reformed system are two things. One is that the old system, those iconic smoke-filled rooms, wasn't stable and by 1968 had produced real problems. The thing is that nominations pre-reform were dominated by the state party organizations, and by 1968 formal party organizations had ceased to be good representations of the party as a whole -- and, in many states, at least on the Democratic side, they were able to prevent outsiders (both individuals and groups) from participating at all. Reform, in my view, was badly needed.

As far as the reform we actually got...well, I have less to say in defense of it. It's in many ways a sprawling mess. But it has been, for about thirty years now, reasonably stable, and that's allowed party actors to compete and coordinate relatively fairly and at least somewhat efficiently in the sense that it does come to a conclusion and it's hard to call any nomination since the Jimmy Carter years a true mistake, in the sense that the party wasn't happy at the time with their decision. I do believe that the reformers emphasis on the democratic rights of ordinary voters was mostly wrong in the nomination context, but their efforts to make the parties more permeable, more internally democratic, were very important and on the whole in my view more successful than not.

What of the length of the process? I'd rather that reporters spend more time on governing than on electoral politics, and within electoral politics relatively less time on presidential elections and more on all other elections.* But I don't think the nomination process is causing the focus on presidential elections; that has to do with biases within the media, not the way that the process is structured.

*Yes, I'm guilty here as well; my defense is that, well, it's something that I've studied quite a bit. But, yeah, I should spend more time on Congressional elections.


  1. Why is "stability" a positive value? Shouldn't a party be able to crash and burn if it ceases to be representative of a decisively large share of the electorate, and make room for new political alignments? "Stability" just locks in the ability of the existing party elites to dictate our choices to us in the general election. In any event, now that more and more voters are becoming alienated from the parties and registering as independents, isn't the system becoming unstable in a new way? Sharron Angle/Christine O'Donnell, anyone?

  2. And to follow up on my last comment, even the election of Scott Brown to the Senate to fill the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy is a symptom of this breakdown. Martha Coakley was nominated by the Democrats with 310,000 votes (fewer than half of those cast). Nearly 2.25 million voters voted in the general election. Republican primary voters are becoming more conservative and uncompromising. Democratic primary voters are becoming more clueless.

  3. Yeah, the only people who much care about presidential primaries this early in the game are the chattering class who need to harvest clicks, and a few of us who take it as a hobby. The rest of us don't care. We definitely will come January. I'm continually amazed how the world flips when that calendar flips. It's palpable and powerful. 0-60 in seconds.

    I'd say the old "smoky back room" is sorta underway right now. Candidates are doing what they've always done pre convention, running around gathering support from folks who can bolster them. TPaw didn't sell in the smoky back room. Yes, he didn't sell in public opinion much either, but he might have hung on if the cigar chewers threw him a bone or 2. They didn't, obviously.

    I like the primary process. It's a blend of smoky back room with a popular check mechanism. It can completely break down at times, as in 2008 when neither major candidate was fit for the office, but what are you gonna do? Nothing's perfect.

  4. Our current system encourages people to run for President who are telegenic, don't mind and/or are actively good at raising huge sums of money, and look in the mirror every morning and see a President looking back at them. These skills while very helpful to win nominations and general elections don't always match well with being good Presidents once in office.

    On the whole, I'd rather have a system like Great Britain where you vote for the party and its platform not the prime minister. Which is not to say that charisma, fundraising, and ego aren't a factor there, but backbench members of the Labour party with no track record of accomplishment have no opportunity to do what Michele Bachmann is doing and that's on balance a good thing.

  5. Ugh.

    David Cameron is the most unaccomplished politician on the world stage today. He's done nothing but rise through his class to where's he's at. Only B. Obama could compare worse, whooped through the mill to the oval office, unaccomplished in any real sense. Bachmann has done more than Obama, sorry.

    And Cameron is personally selecting those backbenchers. This unaccomplished drone PICKS who gets those slots. No open primaries. No representative government as we'd recognize it. You think that all comes about because of "achievement"? Dream on.

    You don't have to like our system, but trust me, there are worse out there. The London bubble is even more impenetrable than the Beltway bubble.


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