03/09/2015 12:29 pm ET Updated May 09, 2015

The Presidential Nomination Process: The Voters Deserve Better


The quadrennial saga of the presidential election nominating process has begun. What should inject constructive energy and useful ideas into the political system, producing a mandate for governing and a re-commitment to republican government, is once again on a course to disappoint us. Both parties are to blame -- and so are we.

On the Republican side, we were treated recently, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, to candidates who offered up such promises as that they could handle terrorists because they handled protesters in Wisconsin, would abolish the IRS and send its agents to the border with Mexico, and would repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaving in its wake who knows what.

On the Democratic side, we have no prospective candidate gatherings because the only prospective candidate either can't decide she's running or, more likely, won't say she's running or doesn't want to subject herself to critics sooner than she has to -- her private email account as Secretary of State being a symbol of the secrecy she prefers to maintain.

On both sides, the focus is, again, on lining up donors. The operating principle seems to have two parts. First, if you can't secure hundreds of millions, don't even try to run. Second, if you can, you can keep others from running. Perhaps the prospective candidates are talking to big donors about their views on the nation's future (at least I'd insist on it before forking over millions), but as for the rest of us, we're not yet entitled to know what the candidates plan to do if elected. You can decide for yourself if that puts you in the one percent or the ninety-nine percent.

For the Republicans, the focus in on hyperbolic statements to please the far-right, gaining large campaign war chests, and securing key endorsements to force opponents to drop out. For the Democrats, there are no opponents. Everyone else already seems to have dropped out (or never considered challenging the front (and so far only)-runner in the first place).

As it was four and eight years ago for the Republicans, there is almost no realization that throwing red meat to die-hard conservatives is poisoning the well-spring of the general election (with at least some restraint on this score by Jeb Bush). Unlike eight years ago for the Democrats, the lack of any opposition to Hillary Clinton seems to be assuring an easy path to the nomination without any realization that she is perhaps one more embarrassing revelation away from being unelectable and will not have lived through the crucible of defining and defending her views and character in a nominating process that hardens a candidate for the general election. Should something dire happen to her late in the nominating game, where does that leave the Democratic Party (anyone remember Thomas Eagleton)?

When the nominating process has finished, we will have two candidates who have largely avoided confronting the majority of voters who are not on the extreme wings of their parties. We will have two candidates who have not had to put forth sensible ideas for governing. We will have two candidates who owe more to large donors and bundlers than to the electorate. We will have two candidates whose positions in front of friendly audiences will most likely then turn into vagueness on the presidential campaign trail. In their "move to the center" in the general election, they will try to thread the needle of keeping their base while at the same time distancing themselves from the more extreme views that got that base to nominate them.

As Americans, we will thus lack both a clear choice and a president who owes her or his primary loyalty to us. This will not change until at least four things happen. We need serious campaign finance reform, a nominating process that does not push candidates to the extremes, candidates with the moral courage and civic responsibility to chart a different path to the nomination, and a fourth estate that is more insistent on investigating the sources and content of candidates ideas than it is the distracting charges they hurl at each other.

While some voters no doubt love what the current system has produced - after all, political theater is the ultimate reality show - it serves neither our current national interest nor the future of our democracy. For those who want something better, they will need to marshal support for the kinds of changes we need. Barring that, it will be, as the French would say, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). We deserve better, but deserving won't make it so.