3/17/2008

Rethinking 2012

Politicians, political parties, national leaders, and voters are going to have to do a bit of soulsearching and get serious about how they go about electing future presidents. As entertaining as the 2008 primary season has been so far with its intricacies and unpredictable storylines, it has revealed some very troubling weaknesses that do not reflect favorably on our political institutions and ultimately provide a disservice to the nation.

The Presidency of the United States is the single most important institution on Earth. Issues of war and peace, the international economy, and the freedoms we enjoy are all dependent on this one person. Shouldn't the importance and seriousness of this office be determined by a process that is equally serious?

Here are, in no particular order, criticisms of this campaign that should be addressed.

The 2008 field was winnowed too much too soon. Even though the presidential election is still about eight months away, the campaign essentially started more than a year ago. Now the remaining candidates (particularly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) have torn each other down so much and have rendered themselves so unattractive to the broader electorate that one can't help but wonder why there aren't any more appealing candidates from which to choose.

Even though there are 50 states in the union, the Republican contest essentially got shut down on Super Tuesday, when only about half of the states could have their say. Even worse, the Democratic race was essentially weeded down to two candidates after South Carolina, where the fourth contest was held.

Now Republican voters in the later states are forced to accept John McCain, even though he is considered unacceptable by many in the GOP base. Any votes Mike Huckabee received in Mississippi, for example, were protest votes. Their votes don't matter. And Democratic voters in the later states are forced to choose between the negative Hillary Clinton and the controversial and fading Barack Obama (courtesy of his church).

A handful of voters in a handful of small states wielded a disproportionately large influence over the process, and not in a good way. John Edwards is probably wishing he didn't drop out of the race so soon. And the invisible second-tier candidates, such as Chris Dodd (who was often maligned for being a boring old Washington hand in the debates), suddenly look a lot more attractive as Clinton and Obama go at each other's throats. Nobody would be talking about controversial pastors, inexperience, race-bating, and rhetoric with no substance. But a few thousand voters in Iowa completely shut his candidacy out. The same could be said of Duncan Hunter (the authentic conservative Republicans were looking for), Joe Biden (the muscular and charismatic Democrat the left was looking for), and a few other lesser known candidates.

By the time September rolls around, most Americans will be sick of hearing about McCain, Obama, and/or Clinton. And many voters will lament that they don't really like any of those candidates. And on top of this, these candidates were thrust upon us too soon by an accelerated and frontloaded calendar. What a long time voters have to deal with buyer's remorse.

There should be a more equitable, more orderly, and better paced schedule of primaries and caucuses. Before the schedule became finalized, there were rumblings that the first primaries and caucuses would take place before Christmas last year, which is absurd. It is easy to understand why everybody wants to be first, but there should be better reasons to justify why some states should have their contests before others.

"Tradition" is not a good enough reason to keep rewarding the same states over and over again by granting them the first bite of the apple. Claiming that Iowa and New Hampshire should go first because they are small states also doesn't hold water because there are several states that are even smaller in terms of population and/or size. Why not let Delaware or Montana go first? Or why not give Alabama a chance? Saying that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire take politics more seriously is only an affront to voters in other states who would undoubtedly display the same amount of seriousness if they had the same opportunity. What would make a voter in Concord, New Hampshire, more serious about politics than a voter in Concord, North Carolina?

I have written much about ways to improve the primary process (read Primarily Stupid and Primarily Stupid: Part 2 for more information). Perhaps the most logical idea would be to assign the order of the primaries according to voter turnout in the previous presidential election. This way, voters in all states would have an incentive to turn out, even in "noncompetitive" states like New York or Texas. Imagine being a Democrat in Idaho or a Republican in Hawaii. Your vote would actually count for something! States that display the highest percentage of voter turnout should have their primaries be scheduled earlier. Such states would have proven their seriousness and would deserve to go first. States that display lower turnout should be lumped together and have their primaries take place later. And because the order of the primaries would change from cycle to cycle, politicians would be unable to canvass the same states every presidential cycle even before the primary and caucus dates are established. This proposal would bring more voters into the process and encourage healthy competition.

There is no grown-up in the room, which has led to chaos. All the states were tripping over each other to be first this time around. And two states, Michigan and Florida, rightfully stand to be penalized for trying to break the party rules. Now there's the specter of a fight on the convention floor if the delegates from those two states aren't seated. But if the Democratic Party does not penalize them, then what will prevent another state from violating the calendar and the party rules by setting up their 2012 primary right after the 2010 midterm elections? And if those states are allowed to revote, then they will essentially be rewarded for breaking the rules. It's absolute madness. If the national parties are unable to maintain control over their state parties, then the parties should either be disbanded or sanctioned by an entity with more authority. Having a firm and enforceable primary order (with flexible primary dates) is an idea worthy of serious consideration. And as for the unfortunate voters in Michigan and Florida, like Glenn Beck aptly suggested, you should stop crying about how the big bad Howard Dean and the national parties disenfranchised you. The real culprits are closer to home.

The primary system should be more equitable for the less well-funded and less well-known candidates. The 2008 roster initially included around twenty different presidential aspirants--Fred Thompson, Mark Warner, Mike Huckabee, Bill Richardson, Sam Brownback, and Dennis Kucinich, to name a few. They each represented a unique slice of the electorate and offered their own particular skill set. Regardless of their electoral chances, they all deserved to be heard. The reason for this is that the less well-funded and less well-known candidates were caught in a real bind. The only way they could increase their visibility was to raise money for advertising and campaign operations. But the only way they could raise this campaign cash was for them to increase their visibility. As a result, you had potentially attractive candidates who were forever mired in the second and third tiers, such as Duncan Hunter of the Republicans and Joe Biden of the Democrats. You also had promising and unique candidates who were intimidated by the fundraising juggernauts of the bigshot candidates and ultimately decided to drop out prematurely, such as Russ Feingold and Tom Vilsack.

Now the Democratic race has come down to the two candidates who had sat atop the field since the beginning: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The winner of the Republican race had to travel through the fire and escape political death a few times, but John McCain finished where he started a year ago--as the frontrunner.

John Edwards was never able to crack the armor of the top two Democrats. Bill Richardson flirted with the so-called top tier, but never could get over the top. Sam Brownback was essentially running in place before his defeat at the Ames Straw Poll. And Tommy Thompson struggled to get voters to think of him when they heard the name "Thompson," instead of the better known actor known as Fred.

Only Mike Huckabee was able to make a real surge that was unexpected by most pundits and media practicioners (though it was no surprise to me), but he was unable to translate this surge into electoral gold (at least not this time around) because of Fred Thompson, whose presence ruined Huckabee in South Carolina.

First Amendment advocates would probably say nothing is wrong with the system. And they would even defend the airing of all sorts of misleading or inaccurate ads and the distribution of misleading and outrageous campaign literature as free speech that is protected by the Constitution. However, when a poor candidate is able to dump millions of dollars from his personal fortune into the race while an honorable or better qualified one can't raise any cash needed to retort, it's not particularly fair.

Freedom of speech is a moot concept if some people have more freedom than others. This could be remedied with public financing of elections, but no politician wants to part with his war chest. However, when a candidate receives donations from Interest Group X or Company Y, that weds a candidate to this entity's interests. And spending more time legislating, campaigning, or debating seems more productive and more beneficial for our democracy than simply racing from one fundraiser to another.

The media should promote and conduct debates that matter. There was certainly no shortage of debates last year and even earlier this year when the field was so crowded. However, the media really missed some opportunities to ask meaningful questions and address the issues that matter to real people, rather than dwell on the minutiae of the daily news cycle. Of course, voters are complicit in these disappointing extended campaign ads and stump speeches that masquerade as debates. Voters should reward politicians that get into specifics, don't talk around questions, and articulate their views in a mature and thoughtful way. If the media understand that this is what voters want, they will adapt.

Some politicians, particularly the lower-tier candidates, lamented their inability to get their message out in the debates. When eight or nine candidates are competing for talking time, it can be difficult to balance the questions. A potential remedy would be to divide the debates so that half of the candidates could participate in one debate while half participate in the other. Or half of the candidates could participate in the first half of one debate while the other candidates participate in the second half. The main point is that nobody really benefits when there are so many candidates duking it out on stage, especially given politicians' propensity to be so longwinded in their responses or take awhile to warmup and actually address the moderators' questions.

American politics may be entertaining, but given the stakes of this year's election, entertainment should take a backseat to competence, pragmatism, and fairness. Unfortunately, the campaign season thus far has been anything but that. And everyone has a responsibility to fix it.

12 comment(s):

Brett said...

I like a lot of these ideas (especially the idea about ranking the primaries by the percentage of the populace that voted), but it's an uphill fight.

In order to get major changes in the primary system, you would need

1)Someone at the head of the DNC to act with dictatorial force, who would be willing to bust balls with the state parties and pull off some pretty amazing negotiation feats;

or

2)Government intervention on the federal level, which is, IIRC, constitutionally risky. The states and state parties have traditionally had the right to set up their primaries and run them as they wish (even if they mean nothing), and you would have to risk lawsuits to change that.

Brett said...

Congratulations on winning the scholarship. After looking at the other two blogs, you deserved it. You came up with some interesting insights that I saw neither of the other two think of.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

I like the primary order proposal as well. Things seem to make a lot more sense to average people, so we don't understand why those in power don't seem to get it. I guess they don't want to do anything to undermine their influence, which is sad because it's often the general populace that suffers.

As for the scholarship, thank you so much for your kind words and your support. Because I'm an independent, I really thought I was at a disadvantage because voters might vote based on their partisan loyalties. But it looks like people actually checked out the blog and liked what they saw.

Thanks again for the comment, and thanks for reading The 7-10!

Brett said...

I think part of the problem is that Iowa and New Hampshire have actually enshrined their "first in the nation" status into their laws, so you would have to simultaneously challenge their right to do so in court when, if you try to change the primary order, they inevitably jump in.

That, or you would have to punish them to such a degree that they would change their laws voluntarily. I don't know how you would do this - maybe a blanket sanction on any candidates who campaign in those states without a law change, banning them from ever taking the Democratic nomination? Of course, after this whole sordid Florida-Michigan mess sorts itself out, nobody is probably going to be in the mood for high-handed punishments from the DNC.

I kind of envy the RNC. They made a pretty smart manuever in only taking half of Florida and Michigan's delegates, since it meant that both states couldn't whine about them being "unrepresented" while punishing them severely for breaking the February 5th rule.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

too late now, because the Amero gets here 2011

Brett said...

It's generally not a good idea to respond to spam, but I'll make an exception. I actually think the Amero (if it actually exists, which is doubtful) would be good - if you are an American. Why? Because

1)Considering the disparities in economy size, you can almost guarantee that the central bank handling the so-called "Amero" would be tilting towards American economic interests and the American economy's stability;

2)you could then proceed to buy stuff in Canada and Mexico without the hassle of currency exchange.

Political Realm said...

Congrats on the scholarship, Anthony. You've got a great blog and you deserve it.

oso diablo said...

Anthony, are you familiar with the American Plan for Presidential Primaries?

http://pweb.jps.net/~gangale/opsa/ps/index.htm

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

You're right. When you start getting into "states' rights" when it comes to election law, it seems that the Supreme Court would be stepping into dangerous territory. But then again, why don't other states write new laws saying that they have the right to go first, or at least ignore other states' laws concerning elections?

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Political Realm,

Thanks a lot. I really like your blog too. It seems to be geared for the same audience that mine is. People who like politics, but aren't TOO hardcore or TOO inside the Beltway about it. I definitely will keep checking out the Realm and offering my creative comments there. Much appreciated.

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Oso,

I've never heard of that plan before! Who proposed it? Looks like I have some goodies to read! Thanks a lot!

VillagePeeps said...

Hey you have a great blog, Prof. Palmer. I'm an ameteur blogger myself (no where near you), I enjoy it as personal aromatherapy. My daughter got me into it. You can check out my main blog page

http://cnsawcorp.blogspot.com

where i try to offer informative journalism. now i just gotta refine it more and get more readers, or better yet readers who comment.

btw, the republicans lost a great candidate in mike hukabee. he spoke more to the values of the republican party better than anyone, except for one republican value that is actually a cancer - money. that's the value that killed romney. you just can buy our votes.

thanks for letting me comment.

VillagePeeps said...

oh, and congrats on your achievement on winning the scholarship!

Anthony Palmer said...

VP,

Thanks for dropping by! I will check out your blog and see what's happening. For me, I started The 7-10 a little over a year ago and had no readers. I was essentially just putting my thoughts out there and hoping that random people would stumble upon it. Over time, I started getting more hits, more comments, and more attention, but it took several months. Anyway, if you keep turning out a consistently good and distinctive product, people will come back and participate. So be patient! I recommend checking out other blogs that are related to your own blog and leaving thoughtful comments there. That will help you get exposure and maybe even land you a spot on other peoples' blogrolls. That's what you have to do, so don't give up!

BTW, I'm not a professor (yet), but thanks for the promotion! I'm actually a teacher by day and a PhD student by night, so I'm pretty busy.

Thanks again for dropping by The 7-10. Please come back again and join in the conversation soon!

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.