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Members of the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee, from left, Donna Brazile, Elaine Kamarck and Alice Germond vote on what to do with Florida delegates during their meeting in Washington in 2008. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)
Elaine Kamarck got her start in Democratic politics in the 1970s, at a time when political parties had just recently begun to open up the presidential nominating process. The modern primary system did not really even exist until that decade, after a set of party reforms following the 1968 election took control of the nominating process out of the hands of party insiders and allowed voters a greater say.
The current controversy over the Republican Party’s nominating process, driven by Donald Trump’s complaints that the system is “rigged” and “corrupt” — and his call for a “bold infusion of popular will” — ignores the fact that the rules have been generally the same for more than four decades. Kamarck, who started as an aide to President Jimmy Carter and became a top White House official during the Clinton administration in the ’90s, wrote a book called Primary Politics (2009), which explains the history of how the modern nominating process for Republicans and Democrats came to be.
She talked to Yahoo News about the current debate over the GOP system. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Yahoo News: A lot of people are wondering about these rules for how delegates are selected. They’ve never really mattered since the primary season was opened up in 1972. Why is that?
Elaine Kamarck: They’ve mattered three times. They mattered for the Democrats in 1972. They mattered for the Republicans in 1976. And they mattered for the Democrats in 1980.
But for most people under 30, that’s ancient history.
True. Most people are accustomed to thinking that — if they think about those delegates at all — they think those are people brought to the convention to cheer on the nominee and wear stupid hats.
So why does it matter now?
The only reason it matters is because the voters haven’t given a clear-cut victory to someone. What we are accustomed to is: Someone wins early, they keep on winning, the other candidates drop out, and by the time you get to July, there isn’t a contest anymore. Whenever the voters don’t make a clear decision, the decision making falls to the delegates and you have essentially the system that existed prior to 1972, where party insiders get to make the decision. There’s nothing new about this. It’s just that in the modern situation, we’re not used to it.
It happened all the time pre-1972.
The first nominating convention was in 1832. Until 1968, Americans nominated their presidents in almost exactly the same way. It was party leaders, elected as delegates in their states, going to the convention. For all that time, almost no one ran in primaries. There were very few. In fact, running in a primary was considered a weakness, not a mark of strength. In ’72, because of … reform efforts on the Democratic side, more states held primaries, [and] those primaries suddenly were binding — or attempted to be — on the delegates.
What do you think of Trump’s complaint that the system is corrupt and unfair?
Trump’s out of his f***ing mind. Every single presidential candidate except for him knows what this system is. It’s not corrupt. It’s the system by which the parties pick their nominee. Parties are protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly. No American is forced to participate.
Parties are institutions. They have an interest in preserving their brand. Coca-Cola doesn’t let Pepsi participate in their brand. Republicans don’t let Democrats participate in their brand. This is a party decision, and parties make these decisions based on their institutional health. Meaning, if you put someone at the top of the ticket that is so unpopular that you lose the House of Representatives, you’re not doing the right thing for your party.
The voters have been included to keep parties from getting really out of touch. In 1968, Democrats did not understand the depths of the antiwar sentiment in their party and cut [Vietnam War opponents] out of their convention. This time, the Republican Party didn’t understand the anger of voters for Trump. But the bottom line is, this is not a public decision — it’s a party decision.
Do you want that on the record, that Trump is out of his f***ing mind?
Yes. He’s out of his f***ing mind. He’s an a******. No other candidate has ever run for president so unprepared.
Do you think his arguments will influence the way we choose nominees?
The systems will only change if the parties themselves decide to change them. My guess is the system will move in the other direction from where Trump wants it to, with parties taking greater control of the nominations to keep them from being captured by people who sully the brand.
Trump is essentially arguing for direct democracy.
Exactly. He is arguing [for] direct democracy. The Congress has considered a national primary many times. Political parties, however, will never be for it. The current system is very open through the primaries and caucuses and to letting new people participate. At the same time, it has an insider piece to it. That’s why the system has persisted for 40-some years.
The general election is a different story because it’s a constitutionally sanctioned thing. The parties are a different thing. Parties have the right to say this person is not a Democrat or a Republican. They are voluntary associations of citizens. They are semipublic organizations. No democracy has ever managed to function without parties. They are crucial for organizing the electorate and helping people govern.
Why were the Founding Fathers concerned about parties?
The founders were concerned about the mischief of factions. They created this system of elaborate checks and balances to stop anybody from gaining too much power. What the founders created is something that Trump doesn’t like, where it is very hard for one faction to foist its will on others. The Founding Fathers tried to avoid factional disputes, and they did not succeed, because by 1800, the Jefferson versus Adams race was one of the meanest, nastiest party fights in history.
No other democracy in the world nominates its candidates in primaries. All the parliamentary democracies have party conferences and they have lists. You can’t just go run for Parliament in Devonshire [in the United Kingdom]. You have to be placed on a list by the central party committee.