- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

The professional football season is almost over and so is the presidential nominating process. Those Americans offended by hype can take comfort. This noisy media of ours will soon quiet down a bit.
Possibly the fans of the NFL have had enough for a while. Certainly the owners and the bruised players will enjoy the respite. The officials of the major political parties, however, are not so happy to see their presidential nomination season drawing to an end just when it was beginning. In this they are right, but they have only themselves to blame.
More precisely, they can blame those among them who advocated the party reforms of the 1960s. Those reformers, led by the Democrats, prescribed the primary as a way to "open up the process." Offended by the control that party professionals such as Chicago's Richard Daley, father of the present mayor, exerted over the 1968 convention, reformers settled on a magic wand that they and their predecessors had been advocating since the populist era. A system of state primaries, they argued, would not only "open up the process" but also encourage wider participation from the voters. Well, now we have their system of state primaries.
By mid-March both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations should be settled. Party professionals are reputedly still in charge, but a smaller percentage of eligible voters will have decided the nominees than 30 years ago. Moreover, all most of these voters did was watch television, become "educated" to "the issues" by a series of lubricious television advertisements, and stroll into a primary booth to vote. This is "voter participation"?
Now officials in both parties are concerned. The problem is the primary system itself and the way large states such as New York and California have moved their primary elections forward. Consequently, by March 7 front-running candidates in both parties probably will have garnered enough votes to ensure nomination at their summer conventions. Springtime will be devoid of politics, though the vast majority of the electorate will not yet be thinking about the candidates. In fact, there will be only two candidates to think about, and they will probably be on vacation.
Former Sen. William Brock, once chairman of the Republican National Committee, now heads the Republicans' Advisory Commission on the Presidential Nominating Process. When interviewed in the New York Times recently he said, "There is a very considerable number of states that feel they have no voice, and frankly, an awful lot of people feel they have no effective voice in the selection process." Well, they are right.
Professional politicians are still in charge. They always will be. They are the people who devote the most time to politics. Yet they preside over party organizations that are increasingly feeble. The breakdown of political parties is one of the problems with American politics and that breakdown is largely a consequence of such reforms as the primary system. Yet will the primary system be junked by alarmed party officials in both parties? I doubt it.
Instead there will be growing pressure to have a series of regional primaries all occurring at about the same time. Yet, though such primaries will allow more voters to have a say about the nominee, they will not really encourage voter participation. There ought to be more to voter participation than walking into a voting booth after viewing a series of devious ads.
The real reform that would encourage more voter participation of a serious nature would be a return to the nominating system employing state conventions. When state conventions chose presidential nominees, neighbors were encouraged to ask their neighbors to vote. They needed their neighbors' votes to send them to their conventions. Such person-to-person contact was certainly a more profound sort of political participation than mere primary voting. It allowed a wider range of citizens to talk out the issues. It coaxed some neighbors into the process who might never have gotten into the process. And it probably lessened the influence of money in presidential campaigns.
Now that last thought should fetch the interest of today's advocates of ill-conceived reforms, to wit the advocates of campaign finance reform. The primaries are immensely expensive. State conventions cost individual candidates little by comparison. Party organizations do the bulk of the work, much of it with volunteers. Expensive television ads recede in importance, and the personal involvement of a wider range of citizens grows. That is what reformers wanted in the 1960s. They could have it today with a return to state conventions.
Reformers, my advice is to take a step backward into the past. That will move you forward into the future. Just try it.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is editor-in-chief of The American Spectator.

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