What would American presidential politics look like if there was no primary and caucus system?
What if we had to wait for presidential nominations at the national conventions in late summer and early fall?
The primary system championed by progressive Wisconsin U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette at the beginning of the 1900s has gone far afield from its original intentions to letting the people decide instead of the party bosses.
La Follette's ideas of a primary that were originally based on populism, has turned into a disorderly system that promotes narrow and special interests, ideologically extreme candidates, and tons of money.
When it began in the very early 20th century by one of its champions Robert M. La Follette, the primary was only held in a handful of states and only in some cities where the corporate elites and political party bosses collaborated. La Follette's goal was to open up the nomination system to the general public and allow for democracy to overcome corrupt practices. The primary and caucus system has gotten out of hand. Today the overwhelming majority of states hold some sort of caucus or primary making the process more extensive than the actual November election.
"Fighting Bob" La Follette would be turning over in his grave at our weird primary and caucus system that caters not to the center, but to the extremes giving us poorly prepared presidential candidates and not so great presidents.
As La Follette and other Progressives envisioned, primaries would be a democratic way to have the people speak and make their voices heard in helping select the candidates to represent the GOP and Democratic parties as their presidential nominees.
However, over time we have seen the demise of the national political parties and the rise of self-appointed candidates for the Oval Office with little or no apparent qualifications for the position.
It is time to turn America's chaotic primary system back into something that makes sense. It is time America produces an election process that brings out the best and most centrist candidates for the nation's highest office. Instead, today, we have a complex web of leapfrogging states trying to beggar thy neighbor. It is all about bringing in money to the state from jet-lagged reporters and campaign consultants.
The Republican primary, and its lackluster presidential candidates, shows ever more the need to scrap the wasteful and time consuming process. Bringing back the party bosses of the pre-Progressive era would save the American political landscape a lot of wasted debate and more importantly, a lot of money. Since there are no longer real party bosses, both parties would be obliged to select a diverse group of elected officials who will choose their parties nominees for president.
Like the Superdelegates the Democrats came up with in 2008, these people would have some knowledge of the candidates and their role in the party. It would also be a way of helping rebuild our national political parties. With party leadership making nominations, they can select more moderate and more electable candidates for the general election that do not necessarily have to appease the more extreme aspects of their respective political party. It would also allow for the national conventions to become a serious event rather than a ratification of the primary results.
Watching the GOP debates this year, one wonders how these people have the audacity to say they are in the same league as a Lincoln, Roosevelt or Reagan. Governor Perry forgets what departments of government he wants to cut -- which is the heart of his reason for running for president in the first place. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann blames the news media for not asking her enough questions in the debates.
Aside from its nearly all encompassing nature, an archaic element is added to the system as states push for earlier dates for better position and more influence over the next potential president. Not only does this prevent any sort of political rule of law, but it also allows small states that are front loaded in the primary season to hold an unbalanced amount of influence.
Why did Donald Trump feel he could go from being a real estate mogul to running for the White House? Congressman Dennis Kucinich once said he was running for president in order to get a date. Is having easy access to large sums of money a good enough reason to run for president of the United States? Is having a goal so far out of the mainstream a reason to run for president? Apparently the answer is yes.
We have no screening process to pick who will be serious candidates to actually move forward and run in the primaries. It has become almost a game to many people to throw their hats in the presidential ring without regard for whether or not they are qualified.
Obviously they have to meet the constitutional requirements of being 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and have lived in U.S. for 14 years -- but beyond that it is wide open.
With party leadership making nominations, they can select more moderate and more electable candidates for the general election that do not necessarily have to appease the more extreme aspects of their respective political party. Party nominees could be chosen to appeal to the general public without the influences of Grover Norquist, George Soros, and other special interests.
Bringing back "party bosses" to the political process would return America to political normalcy that voters are hungry for. Americans are frustrated with the way the government has functioned over the last decade and are looking for a return to a steady and prosperous America. Giving the power of nomination back to party leadership will be one way to establish political order in an unstable political world.
Aside from moderation and stability, the cost of elections will be dramatically reduced. According to the FEC, so far in this primary season (through Sept. 30) the Republican candidates have spent over $53 million out of the approximately $90 million dollars they have raised. And that is just the GOP presidential candidates. If you include President Obama and both the House and Senate campaigns, the number sky rockets to $630 million dollars raised so far in the 2011-2012 election period -- and this number is guaranteed to skyrocket as we approach the end of the quarter.
How much would it cost for the party leadership of a political party to select a nominee? A few emails and a couple of meetings perhaps? Not only would this save money, but would be better spent without bouncing back between caucus and primary states, especially for those incumbents vying for the White House. Running for office or reelection by an incumbent makes him or her neglect the duties that they initially claimed they'd carry out once elected. By freeing up the primary season, incumbents can better hold that promise. Imagine an election season that only last two to four months instead of the current two to four years.
Proposed alternatives to the current primary system are little more than the same idea with different spins. National and regional primaries would drive up the costs of primary elections and Americans Elect continues the misguided utopian ideology that politicians can act in a nonpartisan manner. None of these proposals promote moderate politics or limit the influence of special interests.
Iowa and New Hampshire may be nice places, but they should be restored to the obscurity they so richly deserve and end this selfish system of "me first." According to a CBS/New York Times poll, nearly 50 percent of the people questioned felt it was unfair that Iowa and New Hampshire are always allowed to go first as they do not sufficiently represent the diversity of the American electorate.
It is understandable that criticizing our populist democratic system is probably unpopular. Removing the direct primary nomination system and allowing the party leadership to select nominees for the general election may be a limitation of opportunity. But, our government was not designed to allow everyone in America to run for office; it was designed to allow for the interests of the various peoples of the United States to be represented.
Would Obama have been denied the opportunity to be the president if not for the open presidential primary? It's difficult to speculate on such a parallel reality, but it would be obvious that his talent for oratory would be recognized by Democratic Party leadership. And his talents had been recognized as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave Barack Obama early motivation to run for president.
A world without primaries and caucuses would be a positive step in the right direction for American politics. Bring back the party bosses!
*Authored by Robert J. Guttman and Dustin Taylor
Robert J. Guttman teaches courses on presidential politics at Johns Hopkins University, Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. Dustin Taylor is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.