- - Sunday, March 13, 2016


Be careful what you wish for, a wise man once warned, because you might get it. Nevertheless, it might improve the wishful world of presidential politics. The latest poll of the surviving Republican candidates for president is proof that somebody was listening to the demands for civility. Nobody seemed mad at anybody in the latest Republican debate, the language was discreet and the tone amiable. And then the complaints rolled in: “This,” cried the blockbuster headline on the Drudge Report, was borrrrrrrring!

Even Donald Trump discarded, if only for the night, his usual adjective “stupid!” to describe anyone who arouses his ire. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were on good behavior, too, with Mr. Rubio, though probably arriving too late with too little, having his best night of the season.

This season has particularly puzzled the pundits, who in spite of themselves have been dazzled by a charismatic figure who captures maximum coverage, much of it without serious substance — but what was once called “good copy.” The Donald is usually allowed to prattle on without interruption, and the coverage usually betrays an ignorance of the history of American elections. The coverage is geared to attract the highest ratings and the greatest number of “hits” on Internet sites. Ratings and “hits” can measure idle curiosity, but an idling curiosity does not necessarily reflect a curious and thoughtful mind.

Much of the coverage has reflected a lack of understanding of the Trump phenomenon, the why and wherefore of the deep anger of a large and growing part of the electorate. The Trump phenomenon reveals the resentment and hostility of a large number of voters, but we rarely get a look at any of these people or hear complaints from their own mouths. There has been little examination of why so many traditional nonvoters, Democrats and independents, have become Trump voters.

Many correspondents and pundits have demanded a winnowing of candidates to produce a pointed contest between two candidates. Making such demands is hardly the legitimate role of the media, and this year the Republican winnowing may be the work of the convention. That’s the way candidates were chosen for 150 years until Estes Kefauver, a photogenic Democratic senator from Tennessee, discovered the primaries in 1956. They had been largely ignored for years.

If no candidate gets to Cleveland or Tampa with a majority of the delegates promised to him or her, making deals for a majority is in no wise stealing the nomination. The old practice of committing delegates to a promised candidate in the first round and turning them loose to vote for whomever they please on subsequent ballots is an honored procedure.

Brokering a convention was much easier in the old days. Now there’s a much diminished chance that a small group of politicians can retire to a smoke-filled backroom (if only because no smoking is allowed) to choose the nominee. The new digital world, with its cheap and easy access for anyone, makes all that improbable. Nor is it likely that noisy ringers in the cheap seats can be organized to overwhelm the floor to nominate an outsider as in 1940, when the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie, a reformed Democrat. But it’s possible.

The conventions have become scripted and boring, largely abandoned by the television networks. The script allows the presiding chairman to cough at 9:22 on Thursday night, but no burping, however bad supper was, until 10:03 p.m. In the old days conventions were good fun, as well as efficient, and it was, arguably, the best way to produce a nominee. Politics is best when it is a spectator sport and everyone can afford to buy a ticket. Americans have every right to choose candidates in trial by combat. If only. Let the games begin.


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