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Marvin Kitman Headshot

Now is the Time to Come to the Aid of the Parties

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If you ask me, the presidential nominating system is broken and needs fixing. The hallowed process has become dysfunctional. And the tinhorn politicians have done it. Whether a conscious or unconscious strategy, a mere media pathologist like myself cannot say. But the system is now designed to thoroughly confuse voters who in the third year of the 2008 campaign, despite extraordinary overload of information, are still having a tough time making up their minds

I use the word "voters, " referring to the American public loosely. My gauge of the effectiveness of the current system is the 127,260,000 eligible Americans who did not vote in the 2000 national election, according to U.S. Census figures.

Some say the numbers will be bigger this time. Will as many eligible young voters exercise the franchise as in the last important election, the American Idol final, I asked one representative of her generation?

"Well, I wouldn't get that carried away," she said.

As delighted as the party hacks might be with the sleeping giant that is the electorate, the major planks of voter education need reform. Our sacred institutions have all been tinkered with in a negative way, leaving large segments of the TV viewing masses saying, "Wake me up, when it's over."

The first area in need of rehab is so-called TV "debates." Candidates today will only appear in debates that are not debates, but glorified press conferences, controlled by a moderator who parcels out sound bite questions to a select few of the candidates, usually the front runners. Whether they stand at podiums, looking like suspects in a police line-up, as they did until South Carolina, or sit at a round table, which Chris Matthews of MSNBC, characterized as "like a business meeting," they are not debates. Whether the moderator is the Wolfman (Wolf Blitzer) or the cream puff in fancy duds (Brian Williams), flitting like bees kissing the flowers from issue to issue, voters are left comparing apples to tangerines.

The dangers of a real debate were demonstrated by Hillary and Obama taking the kid gloves off in Myrtle Beach Monday night. They really went after each other, leaving the media and voters amazed.

Then the politicians broke up the ancient primary system.

By tradition New Hampshire always came first. If you could stand the weather in the Granite State in March, it could be argued, you had a shot at being a good President. People knew you had the intestinal fortitude or, at the very least, thermal underwear.

Now we have the political agenda being set by caucus. As absurd as was the media hyperventilation over Iowa, that was calm reflection compared to Nevada.

In the old days a few political wonkheads would gather around the crap tables and raise their hands. Suddenly everybody was arguing about the nefarious practice of opening Strip casino precincts so even hotel workers could raise their hands. With all the statistical mumbo jumbo at the cable news networks, nobody told us how many voters were legal vs. illegal?

Then the state party leaders went berserk in their race to move their primaries to the front of the line. States acted like second tier celebrities, competing for face time in the tabloids.

Michigan...South Carolina...Florida-- each has its face pushed into the cameras by the media as if it was the biggest thing since the invention of sliced bread. The primaries were not a good measuring tool for voters because the playing field wasn't level: not all candidates competed in each primary. Giuliani carried it to an extreme by taking a bye out of all, until Florida.

On the upside, primaries are like the founding grandfather of TV reality shows, Survivor. At the end of every primary, it seems, one candidate is banished. Fred Thompson threw himself from the crawling train after South Carolina.

And now comes Super Tuesday where in the rush to not be left behind, 22 states hold their preference votes the same day (Feb. 5). The demolition derby of primaries, the crashes should be entertaining for lovers of political sadism.

Still to come is the finale, the national conventions, where theoretically delegates elected in the primaries come together in a big city to get drunk, play politics and be seen by the folks at home on the telly. Traditionally, these events are of special interest to political theatre buffs, a chance to hear the rhetoric and promises being made since the campaign started three years ago. It also was important to be informed about what our delegates were doing, even if was only sleeping or picking their noses during the speeches.

The commercial networks have given their opinion of conventions, as they shrink coverage every quadrennial. The benchmark of serious TV news organizations was gavel-to-gavel coverage, even though to most viewers it sounded like a road building method.

NBC News pioneered in reducing coverage in 1996 by dumping its public service obligations on PBS. By 2000, the toxic waste zone of choice was MSNBC. By this election we will be lucky if the conventions get 60 seconds on a newsbreak updates, interrupting the commercials.

All of this is not to say politics don't serve a function on TV. It is a source of revenue for networks and local stations that continues to grow at an alarming rate. It's also a convenient way to eliminate candidates who don't have deep pockets filled with fat cat donors who, of course, are altruists whose primary interest is seeing democratic discourse flourish.

What I am proposing, instead, is a return to the good old days of American politics, when our forefathers knew the preliminaries, as hallowed be their name, were appetizers, lagniappe, divertissements. The main course was the big city power bosses getting together and deciding behind closed doors who is going to be the party's presidential candidate. True, they can't do it in smoke-filled rooms anymore, because smoking is against the law in so many jurisdictions.

Brokered conventions did okay in the past. They gave us FDR and Harry Truman in modern times. And before that, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all emerged from smoke-filled tavern rooms.

My second reform calls for a kind of term limit on the nominating process. If you can't convince voters in six weeks about your qualifications, I say, you shouldn't be in the Oval office. The endless campaigns have turned into disgusting spectacles starting immediately after the last line of the Inaugural Address.

The Brits are doing well enough following the six-week rule.

America of course, is different. As my favorite political scientist, Spike Milligan of "The Goon Show," put it, "You can fool some of the people some of the time. Quite enough to become President of the United States."