Changing the Constitution to Rationalize Presidential Politics
Thursday, July 13, 2006 :::
That's the general thesis of this Larry Sabato piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Sabato has done a great service here by floating an idea that is both audacious and thought-provoking: amending the Constitution to create a "regional lottery plan" for nominating presidential candidates that would force Congress:
...to designate four regions of contiguous states (with contiguity waved for Alaska and Hawaii, and any other stray territories that might one day become states). The regions would surely look something like the ones on the map below, with natural boundaries denoting the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. These regions have about the same number of states: Northeast (twelve states plus DC), South (thirteen states), Midwest (twelve states), West (thirteen states). All of the states in each region will hold their nominating events in successive months, beginning in April and ending in July. The two major-party conventions would follow in August. This schedule, all by itself, would cut three months off the too-long process currently prevailing in presidential years.
Sabato argues that such a plan would make sense of what he believes is a non-sensical, front-loaded process that places too much power in the hands of Iowa and New Hampshire :
The election campaign will be shortened and focused, a relief both to candidates and to voters. All regions and states will get an opportunity to have a substantial impact on the making of the presidential nominees. A rational, nicely arranged schedule will build excitement and citizen involvement everywhere in the country, without sacrificing the personalized scrutiny of candidates for which Iowa and New Hampshire have become justly known.
There is some merit to such a scheme, if only because it would force candidates to campaign nationwide, rather than simply pouring their time and resources into a few early contests and then riding those results to the nomination.
But while Sabato believes the only sure way to achieve such a change is through a constitutional amendment, rather than statute, the real question to me is not how to make the system more rational (codifying Woodrow Wilson's mechanistic view of politics and the Constitution), but rather, is the current system worth fixing at all?
Maybe it's just the curmudgeon in me, but the quote from Washington's Farewell Address on the danger of political parties and factions that Sabato cites at the beginning of his essay, seems to be the true starting point of this discussion:
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
I suggest that rather than tinkering with the nomination process, much less inserting it into the Constitution, we ought to be asking ourselves whether Washington's warning has come true.
In some ways, it most certainly has. In Virginia's case, the Byrd Machine is a prime example of how the ambitious used their command of party and patronage to effectively disenfranchise whole classes of people in order to maintain a lock on power. Of course, time and demographics eventually overturned the Machine. But we live with its vestiges even today (VDOT, anyone?).
At the national level, a combination of campaign finance regulations and changing voter values have effectively reduced political parties to cash drawers, and even that role is diminishing with the rapid rise of well-funded independent organizations. Does a party label mean as much as it used to? Probably not and probably even less so in the years to come.
So what are the alternatives? Should parties be banned? Of course not. Should all candidates run without benefit of a party label? Interesting, and already in practice in many areas, but probably not the sort of idea that would make a great deal of difference in the long-term.
Nor will the existing parties willingly surrender the advantages they currently enjoy, especially when it comes to ballot access.
I don't have an alternative to the existing order right now. But I'm willing to entertain ideas.
::: posted by Norman Leahy at 7/13/2006