No Way to Pick a President

May 23, 2011

For release May 25 and thereafter (664 words)

Bring back the smoke-filled rooms, please. Without the smoke. Thoughtful deliberation by political insiders intent on winning the general election would produce far better candidates for president than the mass-media vetting process we use now.

Mitch Daniels decided against a run for the White House because his family didn’t want to endure a national campaign and all that comes with it. Who can blame them?

Here’s how our system works. A few years before a presidential election, prospects start floating their names in trial balloons. Pundits start bursting them. Saturday Night Live starts mocking them. Dirty laundry gets aired. Most self-eliminate for family or financial reasons before they even declare they’re running.

Who are left going into primary season?  A few high-profile politicians addicted to running or those with egos too big to recognize how demeaning the whole thing is.

The best leaders are not necessarily the most ambitious. But if you’re not ambitious, you don’t stand a chance of becoming president.

George Washington  — who ranks in the top three on anybody’s “Best Presidents” list — never would have “declared” a candidacy let alone subject Martha to reporters prying into their marriage. He became president the old-fashioned way. The leaders of his day backed by public opinion convinced him of his obligation to his country.

When Washington resigned as commander in chief at the end of the Revolutionary War, he announced he would not seek a role in future government. The Electoral College, which was devised before the development of political parties, essentially drafted him and to this day he’s the only president chosen unanimously by electors.

“In his diary that day, Washington did not write about winning the election,” notes one historian. “Instead he wrote about his worries about doing the job well. He also wrote about his belief that he should serve ‘my country in obedience to its call.’ “

Today future presidents must heed their own call and the Electoral College plays no part in determining the choices from which voters, and thus electors, get to choose. That role in theory is played by the parties though in reality candidates individually must raise millions of dollars for television ads if they have any hope of winning a party endorsement.

The vetting process used to happen at nominating caucuses or conventions held by the parties and attended by activists who knew the electability of different candidates, if they didn’t know them personally. Today national conventions are rubber stamps for the one left standing after months of intensive media scrutiny played out in the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire primary and on Super Tuesday.

Our current process emerged for the right reasons. It’s democratic instinct to let the public pick candidates instead of delegating that job to party elites. The smoke-filled rooms of the past brokered quid pro quo deals and “corrupt bargains” and were slow to open doors to minorities, women and non-establishment types who have enriched the electoral process.

But it’s a stretch to claim the process has gotten better. How many Republicans thought McCain/Palin was the best possible ticket in 2008? How many Democrats thought Hillary Clinton was more qualified than Barack Obama?

Sad to say but Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t win an election today. They had too many personal foibles and physical imperfections to get past the intensive scrutiny stage.

Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics, says, “The single most glaring defect in our mostly admirable political system is the presidential selection process” because it starts too early, gives too much power to Iowa and New Hampshire and excludes serious candidates.

It excludes candidates like Daniels. He is intelligent, practical, experienced at governing, knowledgeable about world issues and committed to helping the United States solve its biggest problems.

Daniels is not running for president because his family doesn’t want to endure the indignity of the process. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that we need a more dignified process.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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