Now that the presidential election is behind us, we can set aside the quadrennial handwringing over the electoral college and address the real problem: a nominating process that rewards individuals who can spend two years or more running around Iowa and New Hampshire pandering to two of the least representative states in the U.S., and leaves most Americans disenfranchised and alienated.
We have grown so accustomed to this system that we forget just how irrational it is. And because it has become ingrained, we also forget that it evolved entirely accidentally. It is time to start over.
A little historical perspective: For most of the first 150 years or so of American life, primaries were not a major factor in the selection of a major party nominee. That was the job of national conventions. As a handful of states began holding primaries instead of state conventions, the process changed somewhat, but the schedule of the primaries remained early in the year so that they could be concluded before the conventions. As more states scheduled primaries, the process became more attentuated, but still scheduled early in the year to precede the nominating conventions.
But the conventions have become archaic and useless, and the string of primary (and caucus) process that precedes them unnecessarily early and absurdly attenuated. What we are left with is a two-year long process that invites the participation of marginal candidates along with those who can spend two years running for president. Then it winnows them out in a way that does three things, all of them bad: It prevents the majority of Americans from having a real voice in the selection of their party's nominee, it encourages marginal and extreme candidates to spend an eternity in Iowa and NH hoping that an early win will catapult them into the first tier, and it often produces a candidate that is unrepresentative of his/her party.
The solution is to eliminate the conventions and schedule a nationwide primary on the first Tuesday after Labor Day. This will have the benefit of shortening campaigns, enfranchising all Americans in selecting their party's nominee, and prevent marginal candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain from becoming favor-of-the-month distractions from the serious business of choosing a president.
Criticism of a national primary has always been that it favors candidates with enough money and recognition to run a national campaign, but why is this bad? We do need candidates with national stature, and do not benefit from flirtations with novelties or candidates with only regional appeal. Moreover, many pundits noted this year that with the Internet and 24/7 news cycle, candidates were in effect running national campaigns and were spending less time doing retail politics in the snows of New Hampshire and Iowa and more time fund raising in Hollywood, Palm Beach and elsewhere.
Another criticism is that such a primary would not produce a nominee with a majority of votes. So what? The majority produced by the current system is a contrivance. Who believes Mitt Romney would have won a majority against a full slate of GOP candidates had everyone been able to vote at once. His majority was produced as the combination of the winner-take-all delegate process and the inability of other candidates to stay in the race after only a handful of primaries.
The process is beyond tinkering. It needs wholesale renewal. We are one nation and we needs to select our candidates as one, closer in time to the general election. This will not only produce better candidates, but it will reduce the "buyer's remorse" that the current system seems to frequently generate. It may also shorten the process and perhaps even trim some of its hideous expense.
Sorry Iowa and New Hampshire, but you've had your time in the sun. It is time for a national primary, not in the snows of January but the golden late summer days of September.