Saturday, January 5, 2008

Dragging Out the Dead Horse for Another Beating

In this brief moment between elections, as candidate momentum works its voodoo magic on a new set of voters, I'd like to pause to expand on something I briefly addressed in my Thursday post. It is, of course, easy to get caught up in the bizarre American system of choosing presidents. Politics is sometimes dismissed as show business for ugly people, but what it really is is an athletic competition for the poorly coordinated. It's about winning and losing, staying ahead and falling behind, beating your opponent and trying to win the championship. In that sense, one can enjoy an exciting primary season the same way he or she can savor a good pennant race in baseball. It's fun to follow the standings as each week passes, choose a favorite candidate, and then root, root, root for the home team.

There is, however, one rather obvious and staggering distinction between baseball and presidential politics. For winning the 2000 World Series, the New York Yankees received a big shiny trophy. For winning the 2000 presidential election (sort of), George W. Bush and the Republicans received the power to drag the country into a destructive and endless war, cripple the economy through a combination of tax cuts and promiscuous spending, and add the United States to the infamous list of nations that torture suspected enemies. Or, if you prefer, they acquired to power to spread the wonders of democracy to the Middle East, jumpstart the economy by making the tax code less confiscatory, and end the practice of coddling international evildoers. Either way, I think we can agree that there is a difference in magnitude between these two results.

Unlike sports, politics grants to some people the power over life and death and should, therefore, be regarded a bit more seriously than athletic competition. To do that, in my view, demands an end to the primary election system, and not just at the presidential level. But let's start there.

The problem, as I suggested Thursday, is not that the current selection system can be trivialized by inattentive voters and gasbag pundits. The problem is that the trivialization is inherent in the system itself. Voters are, in most cases, asked to choose between candidates who agree on 95% of the major issues of the day. Can someone, for example, tell me exactly what the earth-shattering differences are between Barack Obama's world view and Hillary Clinton's? Did you notice any sort of meaningful ideological divide between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney (Version 2.0)?

So why did Iowa turn out the way it did? No, seriously, answer that question. I think you'll come up with something like this: Well, Barack was more likeable than Hillary, and she goofed up in some debate talking about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and young people are sick of the baby boomers and their forty-year old battles, and John Edwards didn’t have as much money to spend, except of course at the beauty salon. On the other side, Mitt was cold and calculating and we can’t say this out loud, but he might actually believe that the Garden of Eden was located near Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City; Mike cracked some good jokes, he knows Chuck Norris, and he convinced a lot of movement evangelicals that he could thump a Bible and play a mean bass guitar at the same time; Fred sounded half-dead on the campaign trail but he sure looked good telling Sam Waterston what to do on TV; and John's major claim on the White House is the fact that, some four decades ago, he was treated barbarically in Vietnam and responded with great physical courage. Have I missed anything here, other than Dennis Kucinich's belief that he once observed a flying saucer?

Sure I'm exaggerating, but re-read the preceding paragraph and tell me just how much of an exaggeration it really is. All of these "issues" were raised during the past several weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Many of them—and you know I'm right—had an impact on the outcome in Iowa and will continue to do so in New Hampshire and beyond. The other day CNN offered a whole segment on candidate likeability and why it's so important. And now all the talk is about momentum, as though hot streaks were themselves a qualification to serve as Commander in Chief.

Again, I'm not blaming the fine people of Iowa. They were given the unenviable task of detecting shades of difference between largely identical politicians. They had to come up with some decision rules, and they did the best they could. Though utterly unqualified to make such a judgment, many of them probably tried the find the candidate from their party who had the best chance of winning in November. Others trusted their gut, which sounds all wholesome and Middle American, but is also the place where one's deepest prejudices and most childlike hopes reside.

And I haven't even mentioned the money. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden dropped out of the race the other day, but in truth they were never really in it to begin with. Obama, Clinton, and (to a lesser extent) Edwards had the big bucks and these two highly distinguished U.S. Senators could not raise their voices loud enough to be heard over the 50,000 watt megaphones. Yeah, I know that Mike Huckabee pulled off his win on a shoestring—it happens occasionally—but if you think that means that money doesn't talk then you need to visit the audiologist. Besides, let's wait and see how Huckabee's little engine that could fares over the next month. Also, does anyone believe that money didn't play a decisive role in the fact that Mitt Romney ever had a chance in the first place? (Quick note: Duncan Hunter's lack of funding obviously hurt him, but not as much as being Duncan Hunter did. I mean, how did anyone in San Diego ever vote for this guy?)

Now I know what you're thinking: if we don't use primary elections, don't we end up back with the old smoke filled rooms where political bosses choose the parties' nominees? And won't that lead to a return of the petty corruptions of horse trading and back scratching? Plus, what makes you think the professional pols will do any better job of picking the winners than a bunch of corn farmers and lumberjacks? Aren't those the same so-called pros who thought that egghead Adlai Stevenson could beat Dwight Eisenhower? Twice!

Fair enough, why don't we take these is order? First, yes, it would mean that the party professionals would control the conventions and select the nominees, though under today's sensibilities, all smoking would likely take place outside the assembly hall. Second, horse trading and back scratching, also known as compromise and outreach, are neither petty nor corrupt. Third, I have nothing against corn farmers and lumberjacks. I enjoy my bowl of Sugar Pops in the morning and I strongly prefer to live indoors. Fourth, nobody was going to beat Ike in the 1950s and Stevenson wasn't nearly the one-dimensional nerd boy of history's unfortunate caricature.

Seriously, though, I don't think that party operatives are any smarter than, say, Council Bluffs schoolteachers. I do, however, believe that a lifetime in the political world does provide one with a little extra insight as to how to pick candidates with broad appeal and a decent chance of electoral success. More important, political pros are all about winning, and their choices would be relatively unaffected by the sort of extraneous factors that overwhelm pundits and ill-informed primary election voters every fourth January. Further, parties can locate their strongest candidates irrespective of who attended the most fundraisers or who spent the most quality time in Des Moines.

Please don't tell me that this is undemocratic. It is, in fact, the way that 99.9% of the world's democracies choose their leaders. Even under this system, voters will still have the ultimate power to elect either the Democratic or Republican (or even third party) candidate to the presidency. And people in California and Ohio and West Virginia wouldn't have to sit around waiting while a couple of tiny, unrepresentative states narrow the field of acceptable choices (speaking of undemocratic).

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