Did anyone notice that the last few presidential primaries were held this month? Did anyone care? The nominations were wrapped up three months ago when Al Gore and George W. Bush both grabbed a majority of delegates, delegates required to vote for them at party conventions.
Politicians and pundits are proposing ways to string out the nomination process so people from more states have the opportunity to participate while the primaries are meaningful. One Republican proposal involves having smaller state primaries early and bigger states at the end, thus allowing candidates to move from Jeopardy to Double Jeopardy, with a California primary perhaps becoming Final Jeopardy.
We'll cover this proposal and other developments in our July 29 issue, which will be a special issue on politics similar in format to our May 20 special issue on marriage and family. But I'd like to throw on the table a radical proposal: Get rid of the binding nature of primaries, and free delegates to vote at convention time for whichever candidate they believe to be best.
Let's look at the historical record. From the 1830s through the 1950s, conventions were places to trade information about candidates, including their likelihood to embarrass backers. Scandal could sink even the best of campaigns, so only fools took a risk on a marred candidate when better prospects were just a nod away. Such vetting generally took place privately, not on the pages of newspapers. Smoke-filled rooms often served not for the savoring of cigars but the exposure of unsavory candidates.
Convention delegates had leeway to switch candidates if they learned that one was electorally flawed by a messy personal life. Conventions sometimes went on for many ballots because delegates had many reasonably decent candidates from whom to choose. Once in a while an adulterer like Warren G. Harding slipped through, but for the most part candidates with skeletons in the closet were asked to avoid a role so prominent that journalists would have to jostle the bones.
That all changed as binding primaries came to dominate the selection process. Some Democratic leaders knew (and worried) about John F. Kennedy's raging adultery, but once he won the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries in 1960 he was unstoppable. In 1992, wise Democratic leaders who worried about Bill Clinton's adultery had no opportunity to pick an alternative. Mr. Clinton's primary successes awarded him a first-ballot victory, and that certainly seemed fair. But has it been fair to his supporters that much of their agenda has been shelved because of their leader's personal proclivities?
Furthermore, what doesn't get decided privately often hits the front pages eventually. Those who complain about press sleaze should understand that the movement from republican to democratic forms of candidate selection (from selection by leaders who know personally the potential candidates, to selection in binding primaries by voters whose knowledge comes through the media) leaves two alternatives: Ignore adultery, or make it the media focus. Neither is beneficial.
Will post-Clinton liberals acknowledge this? Pre-Clinton feminists were right on one count: As Suzannah Lessard wrote in Newsweek 12 years ago following the revelation of Gary Hart's adultery, "Many people now believe that if a man abuses his wife by womanizing there could be something abusive in his nature." She added, "If a man deceives his wife and lies to the public about his relationship with other women he may well be generally untrustworthy."
Future candidates who are not adulterers may have marred records in other ways. Giving delegates freedom of choice would allow time for more consideration of the whole person. Smoke-filled rooms were good places for delegates to hear about lies, under-the-table deals, and other wrong and risky dealings that could undermine a presidency. Party leaders could assess the likelihood of future recklessness by looking at actions in the recent past, with trashy incidents more than a decade ago treated as ones the candidate had transcended.
Freeing up delegates wouldn't make any difference this year; both George W. Bush and Al Gore have unmarred marriages and solid support from those who know them best. But what if Democratic delegates in 1992 had had the discretion to back off from Bill Clinton? A strong argument for returning control of party nominations to party stalwarts is that they have the greatest incentive to police their ranks. A presidential candidacy requires contributions of time and money from thousands of people, most of whom do not want to invest in a leader with undisclosed flaws. They deserve a break today, as does the United States.