THE REPUBLICAN PARTY’S PRIMARY PROBLEM
We are faced today with seeming political chaos. Nothing seems to be working well. The President is not only ineffective but embarrassing. It seems increasingly obvious that he was never really temperamentally and intellectually prepared for the presidency. The voters hired the wrong person to do the almost impossibly difficult job that the modern presidency has become. The Republicans are the majority party in both the House and in the Senate but they have become so divided among themselves that they seem to have no way to get any real legislation passed. They face a looming crisis in September when a decision must be made about the debt limit. If they cannot manage to arrive at some agreed upon action (to raise the limit or to simply let it continue to rise), then the government will not be able to pay its bills or finance the 20 trillion dollar Debt (20,000 billion dollars). The government will shut down.
The voters are themselves divided. If the polls are correct, most of the people who originally supported Donald Trump continue to do so. It’s understandable that they would feel the least conflict by remaining loyal. They do, as economists say, have real “sunk costs” in not having to admit that they might have made a mistake. In the meantime, many of the public and many media professionals are openly dismayed, openly critical, and clearly terrified by potential disasters looming ahead. Many feel we are living through a nightmare with no obvious end in sight. In the past, whatever their personal circumstances, many Americans have been comforted knowing that they live in a great safe nation, the last great superpower leading the world. As the result of one election last November the ground seems to be shifting beneath their feet. It is a frightening new world.
How could this have happened? Let our minds go back to the beginning at that Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The Founders at that convention did not want political parties to develop here. They assumed that the number of people in the central government would be small (when all thirteen of the original states joined there were 26 Senators!), and that high minded elected officials could simply use reason to find solutions to the few things they expected the new government to deal with. However, after only three presidential elections regional splits led to the forming of political parties. Rather quickly political parties began to choose candidates. Even though the Constitution does not mention political parties, they became incorporated into the system. They found and backed rival candidates. Then, beginning around 1900, as a reform, the parties began to give up the right to choose candidates. Pre-election elections called primaries would be held and party members would choose the candidates for their party (power would be taken away from big city bosses). That was democratic in theory but it also meant that the parties were really stuck with which ever candidate the “members” chose. Before the primary was introduced party leaders would “groom” candidates. They would be started locally and then, the most successful would be moved up. That was possible because of the “two term rule”. People rarely held an office for more than two terms. Once primary elections were introduced, candidates would not leave. They would win their primaries and stay. They would “hog” the offices. That is how we got where we are today.
Today, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan leads a miserable political life. He could be chosen Speaker because his Republicans have a forty four member plurality in the House. Paul Ryan is certainly politically conservative and nearly all his members are very conservative. The moderate Republicans of the Nelson Rockefeller stripe were driven out long ago. As Speaker, Ryan must constantly deal with the Freedom Caucus, a group of about thirty five Republican members (some are secret unrecorded members), who are even more conservative than the others. Nearly all are from rural southern or western districts. Many of the very small number of primary voters in those districts are, as a practical matter, opposed to any federal government at all! The Freedom Caucus members certainly reflect the opinions of their constituents. Imagine being Paul Ryan in September desperately trying to find a way to stave off a government shutdown while dealing with members of his own party who might prefer that the government shut down!
So, House Republicans are unable to unite around issues because the Republican Party cannot prevent candidates being chosen for it in those primaries who have little incentive to really get anything done. The Democrats have some of the same problems with very liberal primary voters. But primaries don’t just choose Representatives and Senators. Ordinary voters also get to decide which presidential candidates’ delegates each state will send to the parties’ presidential nominating conventions. In 2016, seventeen candidates decided they wanted to run for the Republican nomination. The one getting the most votes in those primaries would be its candidate whether the party leaders wanted that candidate or not. Donald Trump did not need to win a majority. He just had to accumulate more votes to get more convention delegates than the other sixteen people in the running when the primaries began. Trump ended up with forty five percent of the accumulated primary votes. It really didn’t matter who the leaders of the Republican Party might actually have wanted.
So, the historic Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, has a majority in the House and in the Senate. Those people thus far have produced nothing because they can’t agree about anything except tax cuts for the most wealthy. But, because they can’t agree on a budget or a debt limit they haven’t been able even to do the tax cuts. They would all like to cut benefits for ordinary Americans but they can’t agree about how severe those cuts should be. In the meantime, the President, chosen for the Republican Party by tiny groups of often very angry voters in those presidential primaries, is clearly predictably floundering. Anger and blind hope is unlikely to produce a successful executive in or out of government. No one in the private sector would advocate having only the angry and the indifferently informed choose leaders. That is exactly what the primary system does.
We have more than two years before delegates must be chosen for the 2020 presidential election. It might be well for actives in both parties to think about how the primary system could be reformed. The goal for both parties should be to rethink the process so that it can more consistently produce really qualified candidates who reflect the real ideals and the real goals of both great national parties. If the process continues to allow a small self selected groups of voters to make the real decisions then the most angry and most extreme will also be the most motivated. Candidates will compete for those voters and many of the most qualified candidates will simply choose not to run.
They are choosing not to run now. We are living with the result!