Turn the Nomination Process on Its Head the Current Primary System of Choosing Presidential Candidates Has Been a Failure; It Needs a Radical Overhaul
Burns W. Roper. Burns W. Roper is chairman of The Roper Organization, Inc., ., The Christian Science Monitor
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 political convention.
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. …