Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan after he won the New York state primary. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Any reporter who has ever spent time on a presidential campaign has heard the perennial rant about “process stories.” That’s when the candidate tells you that really he is desperate to illuminate in numbing and nuanced detail his plan to reverse the decline of American manufacturing (which consists of about 500 words of boilerplate blather on his website), but all we in the media ever ask about is how he intends to win, so he can’t.
(Of course, if you ask him to sit down and talk about the manufacturing plan, his aides will say no, because how can they trust that you’re really going to ask him about the manufacturing plan and not about, you know, the process? Alas, this is their predicament.)
At this late stage in the 2016 races, however, process seems to be the only thing some candidates actually do want to talk about. The system itself has now become the burning issue of the campaign.
Bernie Sanders rails against a rigged system supported by “superdelegates” and “closed” primaries. And of course Donald Trump has now launched a full-on assault against the rules of the Republican nominating process, which he seems determined not to grasp. Trump’s son Donald Jr. weighed in earlier this week, when he told Sean Hannity, “I feel like we’re living in communist China.”
This would be a cogent observation, except that, A, in communist China you go to prison for publicly excoriating the integrity of party leaders, and B, Junior’s dad once praised the strong Chinese response to the “riot” in Tiananmen Square, so I guess brutal repression is fine so long as it’s being used only to shut down and punish people who don’t agree with you.
All that aside, these indictments of the process are bound to reverberate well beyond the conventions, and I’d bet you a lot of money that we are, in fact, going to see some big changes in the way we choose our presidents.
Just don’t be surprised if it’s not the parties who actually change it.
There’s a strange “Matrix”-type thing happening in Republican politics right now (and, to a lesser extent, among Democrats), where voters are suddenly waking up in their little gooey cocoons and realizing that they don’t actually nominate their candidates as they’ve always been led to believe they do.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, and as the Democratic expert Elaine Kamarck explained to my colleague Jon Ward here, the nominees in both parties have always been chosen by a select group of delegates. For most of our history, those delegates were responsive to voters only to the extent that they cared about fielding a candidate with some demonstrated appeal.
In other words, the parties held a few primaries so they could better judge their nominees — not so they could empower voters to choose them.
By the time the tumultuous, violent cycle of 1968 had ended, though, it was clear that a system entirely dominated by local party bosses couldn’t hold without some major retooling. That’s because the traditional nominating process — particularly in the Democratic Party — was colliding head on with the momentum of powerful social movements.
A new generation of activists demanded a system that included more women and minorities and gave more power to the voters themselves. After much reflection and argument, the modern primary system was born, and Republicans quickly emulated it.
What this has meant, in practical terms, is that nominees of both parties are chosen, almost without exception, by a majority of primary voters.
In truth, though, the same generation of party activists who reformed the system in the late 1960s have spent most of the past four decades trying — quietly and bureaucratically — to consolidate their own power against popular uprisings.
Thus did Democratic leaders invent the all-powerful superdelegates after the 1980 election, to keep another insurgent like Ted Kennedy at bay. (Among those who enacted that plan, by the way, was a guy named Tad Devine, who’s now the chief strategist for Sanders. Ruminate on that.)
Just four years ago, Republican leaders came up with an arbitrary eight-state rule, which said no one who hadn’t won eight primaries could be nominated. The rule was intended to thwart Ron Paul; now, of course, party elders are talking about rescinding it so they can nominate someone who isn’t Trump or Ted Cruz.
The 2016 campaign seems now to have become something very close to 1968 — a moment when the nominating process suddenly feels absurdly out of step with larger shifts in the society. In this case, the irreconcilable conflict isn’t about social justice, as it was then, but about the rise of transparency and the toppling of big institutions.
Voters in the age of eBay and WebMD, who increasingly decline to affiliate with either party and who tend to believe they could do heart surgery themselves if directed to the right webpage, aren’t inclined to tolerate an arcane process that gives them only a limited say in the outcome. The illusion of democratization, perpetuated by both parties for 40 years, has been exposed.
Writing in The Hill newspaper this week, Mark Penn, the onetime grand strategist of the Clinton world, offered some suggestions for party reform. Penn urged the parties to adopt open primaries, e-voting and a rotating sequence of primaries to reflect different parts of the country — all solid ideas, if you ask me.
Except for one small problem: A party apparatus exists for a reason, and that reason is to consolidate power, not give it away. You might as well ask the oil industry to build an electric car, or tell movie theaters they should be handing out iPads.
Opening up the process in such radical ways might be great for the democracy, but it would be significantly less great for the state chairmen or committeemen who would have to enact those reforms at the expense of their own control.
No, reform is more likely to come not from within, but from without. If Trump loses the Republican nomination despite piling up a plurality of votes (or even if he wins only to find that the party establishment undercuts his campaign at every turn), the next generation of Trumps — and they’re coming, believe me — will be tempted to bypass the nominating process altogether.
Here’s what I think it will look like: Aspiring, novice candidates who are rich or famous or both will do it the way Ross Perot did it in 1992, or the way Michael Bloomberg threatened to do it this year. They will take on the arcane, state-by-state ballot system and run as independents. And sooner than later, one of them will win.
Like Trump, most of these outsider candidates will be populist reflections of their moment, channelers and manipulators of emotion, exploiters of a vacuum in the market. They will deploy in passion and fury what they could never have amassed in organizational muscle.
Will our politics get more democratic after 2016? Yes.
Nobody said it would get better.