INCREASINGLY for 25 or 30 years now, the American people have
directly selected their presidential candidates. But have the
candidates directly chosen by the people been all that much better
than the candidates that preceded them? The time has come to
acknowledge that the primary system of direct selection is not the
answer to electing better presidents.
Here's the outline of an alternative system that might be a much
better way of selecting not only good candidates, but candidates
the public would be happy with, who would not be viewed as just the
lesser of a bunch of evils.
First, it might be useful to examine our present system of
selecting presidential candidates by means of an analogy. Let's
assume that you have some kind of ailment, some kind of serious
physical symptoms that you are worried about. How should you get
treatment? You might tell your friends and relatives about your
concerns, describe the symptoms to them and ask them what they
think is wrong with you.
After you have asked a number of friends, co-workers, relatives,
and neighbors, you could narrow the ailments your friends diagnose
down to the two that received the highest number of votes. You
could then go to a doctor and tell him what you and your friends
have concluded and that you want him to decide which one of the two
you have and treat that disease.
Pretty crazy, isn't it? Consult all the novices and
nonprofessionals, let them narrow it down to two choices, and then
go to the professionals to pick and treat one of those two choices.
Well, that's not too different from the way we pick our
presidential candidates. This year we had an essentially uninformed
and often not-too-interested electorate narrow the Democratic field
among Paul Tsongas, whom they never heard of before; Bill Clinton,
who they understand smoked pot, slept with an aide, and ducked
military service; Jerry Brown, who they knew was once governor of
California; Bob Kerrey, whom they never heard of but who they
understood got the Congressional Medal of Honor; and Tom Harkin,
who is some kind of wild-eyed liberal from the farm country. This
uninformed public opted for Clinton and now tells the party pros at
the Democratic Party convention that they should pick him.
It is similar in the Republican Party. The public is unhappy
with George Bush, but they decided they don't like Pat Buchanan
either, and they tell the party pros at the Republican convention
to select Bush - "the devil we know." There are our choices.
We should turn the selection process completely around. We might
start with the two political conventions - in May for the
out-of-power party and in June for the in-power party. Any
potential candidate who wants the nomination would have to be a
member of his party and would have to meet some kind of modest
petition-signature threshold to preclude purely frivolous
candidacies. Each candidate who passed the threshold test would
then be allowed an hour's presentation at his or her party's
The presentations would be broadcast in prime time over national
television. There could be two presentations each night with the
order of presentation determined by lot. Each potential candidate
would have one hour, would be the beneficiary of national
television coverage, and would have direct and equal exposure both
to the convention delegates and to the public.
Who would the convention delegates be? They would be political
and party pros. That might include governors, senators, members of
congress, mayors, other office holders, state chairmen, county
chairmen, party workers - people who are involved in the political
process and who would know a lot more about the candidates early in
the campaign than the public would. And who would, presumably, also
know a lot more about what qualifications and characteristics it
takes to be elected and to be a good president. …