Tonight, there’s going to be a Republican presidential debate. It’s the middle of September of the previous year, and there’s been something like six of these things already. People tune out, are bored, and generally become more cynical as somehow presidential politics becomes more and more a kabuki dance nobody really cares about and is becoming more and more poisonous. I blame George McGovern. After all, it was his idea.
In 1968, or so the story goes, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without winning a single primary. That isn’t exactly true, as two “favorite son” candidates who had endorsed Hubert won the Florida and Ohio primaries. However, the myth that Robert Kennedy, who had only won four primaries (three of which were small, Midwestern states), had won far more and was the rightful nominee, was widespread, and the DNC, which felt that the primary system needed reforming.
Now during the first two thirds of the 20th century, primaries didn’t count for much. Parties were parties back then. The local Democratic and Republican parties were clubs. You had to join, there were activities to go to, and every year or so, there would be a state convention, which would be something like Comic-Con or the National Hardware show rather than a major deliberative body.
These were designed to be fun, social events, and as people who went to these things were more in the know than the general public, they would nominate candidates in an informed basis.
Going to the quadrennial national convention was a bit different. More people would want to go to these things than could actually be accommodated, so they would have elections, or in some cases the local leadership would pick and choose who they wanted to go with them.
However, there were also primaries, where the people could run for delegate slots without being personally humiliated at a local meeting. Also on the ballot, were presidential straw polls, which nobody really cared all that much about, but gained publicity for the national candidates, sort of like the one in Iowa last month, which showed that while Michelle Bachmann wouldn’t necessarily win the nomination, Tim Pawlenty COULDN’T.
But back to the 1960s, were the RFK myth was weighing down upon the DNC. The powers that be appointed a commission on primary reform headed by South Dakota Senator George McGovern. McGovern had decided to take over the Kennedy delegates as a symbolic gesture in 1968, and had some clout. So, in order to aggrandize himself, and make the party more politically correct, he pretty much destroyed the internal organization of the Democratic party, before turning the commission over to Representative Donald M. Fraser of Minnesota, and began his own campaign for president.
McGovern’s system worked like this: There would be a steeplechase of primaries, which would take candidates a lot of time to organize by themselves. McGovern declared his candidacy in January of 1971, a full year and more before the first primary in New Hampshire. The only other candidate that was doing this, and he already had an organization in place, was George Wallace of Alabama, who swept the south on a third-party ticket. Had he not been shot, it’s quite possible that Wallace would have won, however, as we know, McGovern did, with only 23% of the vote.
The 1976 primaries were even more confusing, Jimmy Carter gamed the system by moving to Iowa, and even though he came in second to Uncommitted, he managed to get enough publicity out of it to sweep a whole bunch of states before the voters started getting buyers’ remorse, and Frank Church and Jerry Brown began to beat him. The Republicans were forced into the new system, but their rules were far more restrictive, with lots of states doing winner take all, and thus a candidate was able to steamroll his way to the nomination after losing Iowa or New Hampshire.
The system didn’t work very well, with presidential candidates replacing local political bosses, and the social milieu of local politics began to deteriorate.
Extremists began to take over the Republican Party, and Democratic moderates, with the exception of Bill Clinton, didn’t know how to deal with that, the primary became longer, vapid and more chaotic. By 1988 the American people were SICK of presidential politics. But we still had to elect presidents every four years, and here we are today, with something like the fifth formal presidential debate four months before the first formal vote in the nominating system. Everybody’s bored stiff already.
George McGovern’s got a lot to answer for…..