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Fix the Presidential Nominating Process of 2000–Now

The prevailing mood of the Republican presidential nominating process is still one of irritated reluctance, like that of singers being awakened to go on stage at 5 a.m.–and an audience being forced to attend the performance. This show started too early.

We also are witnessing the infamous law of unintended consequences as it snaps back in the faces of the reformers. These good government types (“goo-goos” in the old machine lingo) thought that if we just put limits on what individuals could contribute to candidates and provided federal matching money tied to a spending limit we could clean up the nominating process.

Wrong. For the second presidential campaign in a row we have a multi-millionaire, this time Steve Forbes, who is exploiting his constitutional right to stay out of the federal matching money cage and spend all he wants. He may be an excellent fellow (and I happen to think he is), but there is a little issue of fairness. Competing in dollars with Forbes, Sen. Dole is fast approaching the spending limit imposed by the reformers. We actually could have a “front runner” run out of gas long before the national convention, not because he can’t raise money, but because isn’t allowed to spend it. President Clinton, on the other hand, is effectively unchallenged for his party’s nomination, so he can spend “primary” dollars–re-enforced by federal matching funds–all summer, as if they were final election dollars. This situation also was unanticipated by the reformers. Then comes H. Ross Perot, who could buy and sell Forbes any day of the week, and throw in Fortune and Business Week while he was at it.

Long before the candidates and parties go broke you will see the special interests step in–labor unions, various industry associations and single issue groups. Their “free speech” protected by the Constitution, they will go on TV, as they did in the recent special senate election in Oregon, to run the negative ads the candidates don’t want to pay for or have attached to their own names. The moral is, ban money spent on candidates and parties and you soon will open new channels for it elsewhere, and with no controls. Reformers should think hard about this lesson before imposing still more restrictions upon the political system.

Meantime, here is Chapman’s Plan to Restore Sanity to the Presidential Nominating Process. But it can’t happen in 2000 if it doesn’t start now. (Another way of putting this is that we wouldn’t be in today’s mess if someone had been looking ahead in 1992.)

1) Push the delegate selection process back in the calendar by at least six weeks. The presidential campaign is lasting one year out of every four, which bores and disgusts the electorate. The first presidential primary should take place no earlier than mid-March, as of old. In fact, there is no reason in this instant information age that the primary season should start before mid-April, or even later. It is the two parties who must force this shift by enacting rules changes at their conventions this summer. States and federal governments can’t do it. Under new party rules, no delegates selected before the approved primary season beginning date would be recognized at the party’s national convention.

2) Keep the primary system, but give each party’s top elected and organizational leaders a bigger role in the nominating process . The supposedly bad old nominating system that prevailed before the primary system had the merit, in reality, of letting the long term leaders of a party come together every four years to deliberate. It was hard then for a sudden avalanche of enthusiasm for a candidate to derail the party’s sensible quest for a winner. That system (victim of reformers again) may have been flawed in some ways, but it gave us Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, Harry Truman and even, arguably, Dwight Eisenhower. Have we been doing a lot better lately?

Democrats already reserve a small share of delegate slots for their big wigs, such as governors, members of Congress and state party chairs. I suggest that both parties reserve a full one third of each state’s delegates for its top leaders. The presence of a party’s old hands would assure that the nominating convention retained some of its institutional memory–and the flexibility to help the party change course in August if the choice of April suddenly seemed doomed.

3) Raise the personal contribution limit and end the federal spending limit. No one can stop a billionaire from spending his wad (nor should we), but we must stop handcuffing his competition. The best way is to free up all individual givers and positively encourage the ones of modest means. Individuals’ contributions, unlike PACs, tend to be less about business interests and more about personal commitment. Therefore, raise the $1,000 limit on personal contributions to $10,000. Then give a tax credit for small contributions, up to $50. And throw out the useless spending limit.

The result will be a gusher of new money into campaigns. Yes, campaigns are costly, but we still spend less on politics than on ads for soft drinks, so why are we trying to handicap candidates who have lots of individual backers they can mobilize to match the bank accounts of the super-rich? The real alternative is government funding, whereafter you will have candidates who owe their elections to the government–the most powerful interest of all–and behave accordingly.

4) Use some of the present federal matching funds to support major issues debates. The kind of televised “debates” we have seen in New Hampshire, Georgia and elsewhere are usually just padded versions of the personal attacks that otherwise dominate the news. You can only blame the candidates to a degree; set up a glorified shouting match and the candidates will shout.

So instead, set up regular debates on general topics. Remember foreign affairs? Instead of mere fleeting references to nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the U.N., narcotics traffic or human rights, let’s get the candidates to go into their views in greater detail. Then do the same with economic policy, defense, social issues and the environment. Some candidates simply would burble their sound bites over and over, while others would be able to explain complex ideas. It could prove educational.

I don’t know if my proposals are ideal, or even sufficient. For example, Senator Slade Gorton’s idea of scheduling the primaries as four regional events is also a good one; however, I wonder about having the federal government take over this responsibility. But I do
know that unless the parties (especially), state legislatures and Congress start thinking now about major changes in the nominating process, we’ll be right back in this leaky boat in four years.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.