Column for 9 December, 2007
“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
--1 Samuel 8:4-5
There has got to be a better way to pick a President. The current system is insane. Right now, a large part of the decision as to who will be the next leader of 300 million multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, heavily urbanized Americans is made by the two of the whitest and most rural states in the Union, Iowa and New Hampshire. Presidential candidates of both parties are required to genuflect before the altar of ethanol to have any hope of success. Of course, they also need the ability to consume enormous quantities of fried foods at endless county fairs without having their hearts explode. If you are lucky enough to be from a neighboring state of these two self-anointed guardians of the White House, preferably one in an overlapping media-market, you automatically get a leg up, regardless of how competent or electable you really are (Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis, I’m looking at you). And both these states zealously protect their status at the head of the line; New Hampshire even enshrined it’s commitment to being the first primary in the nation into its constitution. Now, finally, some of the larger states have gotten sick and tired of being so far back in the pack that the nomination is sewn up months before they vote, so a brawl has erupted over who can hold their primary the earliest. And the situation is so bizarre that both parties are excluding (or threatening to exclude) the delegates of states like Florida and Michigan (states far more representative of the country as a whole than either Iowa or New Hampshire) for daring to buck the system. At this rate, Iowa and New Hampshire will be the only states represented at the national conventions and the first primary for the 2012 election will be held on November 5, 2008. In some respects, the clout of the Big Two is being eroded by the rise of de-facto national primaries, like Super Duper Tuesday on February 5, 2008, when 22 states will hold simultaneous caucuses or primaries. And this brings us to the money situation, or more precisely the obscene amounts of special interest cash (estimated to reach one billion dollars this cycle by the Federal Election Commission) that drown the process. In small states like the Big Two, a little money can go a long way. And in states where the voters are used to hordes of candidates, there can be a diminishing return on your investment after awhile. When I ran for office, I became secretly convinced that most volunteer fire departments and churches deliberately scheduled their fund-raising barbecues, spaghetti dinners and bake sales for election season to separate gullible candidates from their hard-earned campaign kitties. Once the surviving presidential candidates get out of Iowa and New Hampshire, however, money becomes essential. On Super-Duper Tuesday, candidates need enough money to compete in states from Alaska to Alabama, including notoriously expensive media markets California’s. The fall campaign (which actually begins the nano-second the nominations are mathematically secured, regardless of season) is obviously even more expensive. In a nation with badly-divided politics, the cruel realities of the Electoral College have led to micro-targeting of tiny voting blocs. In 2004, both the Amish and the Lakota found themselves on the receiving end of unprecedented amounts of hyper-specialized campaign advertising. If you add in the fact that only a relatively few states are really up for grabs in November (Texas, for example, will likely be blessedly ignored by the parties once again), then a repeat of 2000 with a president who wins the electoral vote but loses the popular vote (which has happened a total of 15 times) looms as an increasing risk. Or worse yet, a tie in the electoral vote, a nightmare scenario that nearly happened in 2004, which would of course result in throwing the election to the House of Representatives, which would vote by state caucus, not by individual members (in case you were wondering, Democrats are the majority in 25 delegations, Republicans in 22 delegations, and 3 states, Arizona, Kansas and Mississippi, are tied). This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Their idea was that the Electoral College, composed of the “better sort,” would winnow down the presidential candidates to a manageable three and then the House of Representatives would pick, but that original vision has turned out to be the exception and not the rule, last occurring in 1824. So how do we fix it? There are innumerable suggestions. In my view, if we have to keep the primary election system at all, then rotating regional primaries or a single national primary are probably equally decent replacements for the current hodge-podge. If I were King, I’d probably do away with primaries at all, since so few people bother to vote in them, and go back to having the delegates to the national conventions (the people who actually care enough to go out and work on campaigns) pick their party’s nominee. If nothing else, it would make national conventions worth attending and watching, instead of the insipid highly-scripted cheerleading sessions they’ve become. And as long as we retain a primarily two-party system, the benefits of the Electoral College (forcing candidates to campaign nationwide, for example) outweigh the risks. Those are just structural changes, though; the real problem is the corrosive influence of big money on democracy. Donors don’t cough up a billion dollars out of the pure, unfiltered goodness of their hearts; they do it to buy access to policymakers, to be the guys invited to top-secret meetings on national energy policy with Dick Cheney. As long as we cling to the court-created legal fiction that money equals free speech, then only the voices of those who have the money will be heard. As for the solutions to that, given the choice between having the government regulate who gets to spend money on campaigns and public financing of campaigns, I have to reluctantly choose public financing as the (slightly) lesser of two evils.