Take a good look at him. If our current method of selecting party candidates for president had been in effect in 1860, this man's image would be on the penny -- maybe. He was the front-runner for the 1860 Republican nomination. Have you ever felt like you had no choice in a presidential election? In the last one, I never heard anyone say anything positive about John Kerry, yet he made a pretty strong showing. Most of the people who campaigned for him did so to protest President Bush. I had a similar feeling in the 1996 election. I had to ask myself several times, "Is Dole the best we could do against Clinton?" Actually, the wrong Dole in that household ran for president. The other one could have changed history. Our sad state of affairs is that we have an overblown, expensive, inefficient, and ineffective way of choosing the major candidates for a presidential election. No offense to Mr. Bush, but was he really the best Republican for the job in 2000? Was Gore the best the Democrats could do? The Democrats seem to currently be stuck with Hillary Clinton as a front runner, and no one knows why. No one seems too proud of her, and on the other hand, the names Giuliani and McCain do not make people tremble with admiration and devotion; Obama, Edwards, and others -- Is there anyone on the "leader board" of either party that anyone is actually excited about? Again, that's what lost it for Kerry in '04. I remember a conservative radio talk show host (no, not the one you're thinking of) asking anti-Bush callers to tell him what they liked about Kerry. In an hour, no one had anything positive to say about him except, "He's not Bush." If Kerry could have inspired even 5% of the American electorate, he would be president today, but he was (and is) incapable of it. If Gore could have inspired even 1% of the American electorate (or his neighbors in Tennessee), he would not have needed Florida. Both campaigned with an "I'm not Bush" slogan. Most people campaigned for Dole with a "He's not Clinton" mindset. Those are loser mindsets, but I'm really digressing here.
The point I'm trying to make is that people never get to vote for someone they are excited about. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, that's been true for at least half a century, and maybe longer. Why? I blame the primaries. With California and other states moving to an even earlier date, we find that the major candidates are boringly selected several months before a convention. As a result, conventions are coronations, where favorites of the already-accepted winner posture themselves to impose their favorite planks in the party platform. They are the venue of campaigning for the candidates four years later. Political conventions are "after the fact" and ineffective in doing anything productive. They help maintain the boring party status quo, and preclude the soul-searching and modifications that keep parties honed and current.
Of course, the original designers of the Constitution did not even allow for political parties. As a result, there is no tradition or constitutional law to say how a party elects its candidate. Parties were not in the original idea. The best potential presidents were presented to the states, who decided how to choose their own electors for president. Later, the electors would appear before the senate and cast their votes. The man who won the majority was president; second place was vice president. If there was no majority, the House of Representatives decided who won. That lasted for all of one administration. Washington, the only truly non-partisan president, was succeeded by John Adams, who let it be known he was a "Federalist," the pre-cursor of the "Whigs," which would later be replaced by the Republican party, whose first winner would be Lincoln. Adams won, and his bitter opponent, Thomas Jefferson, came in second. Here's the wonderful irony of political parties. Jefferson is hailed as the founder of the Democratic party. However, he called himself a "Republican." Historians call the party "Democratic Republican." Most of Jefferson's political values were Reagan-like and beyond -- states' rights, limited federal government, etc.
Needless to say, Adams and Jefferson, former friends, did not get along well. Adams felt that strong federal control would not be too bad. He did not totally object to maybe being more like a king than a prime minister. When elections came around again, Jefferson ran against him, and it was a polarized election: the Federalists versus the Republicans. Jefferson was the first to choose a "running mate," Aaron Burr. Everyone knew that he was a VP nominee but Burr himself. When Jefferson and Burr got the same number of electoral votes, Burr decided to stake a claim for the Oval Office himself. Through the help of those who knew what was going on, Jefferson was made president and Burr was declared vice president. The constitution was changed to the current method of selecting a VP, and Burr, angry at Alexander Hamilton who had helped topple his vision of grandeur, shot him in the brisket 180 years before anyone ever heard of Dick Cheney.
From that time, party candidates were chosen by a caucus of congressmen of each party. For instance, in 1816, a caucus of "Republican" congressmen chose James Madison as their party's representative. While not a perfect system, it was replaced as the choosing of a president moved closer to the hands of the popular majority. James K. Polk was the first to experience it. In the Democratic Convention in Baltimore in 1844, Polk wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye. They were looking at former president Martin van Buren. In fact, van Buren got the majority vote on the first ballot, though not the 2/3 needed. Polk got zero votes. There were other names -- Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, and future president James Buchanan. By the 5th ballot, van Buren had slipped, and Cass was in the lead. By the 8th ballot, Polk got a vote. On the ninth, he won with 233 votes, and was the first candidate selected this way.
That brings me to William H. Seward. In the 1860 convention, he was the front-runner for the nomination. In all fairness, the Republicans (not to be confused with Jefferson's party which had evolved into the current Democratic party) had not yet had a valid candidate. They had run Fremont against Buchanan four years earlier, and he had made a fair showing. The Whig party had self-destructed, and would soon be gone entirely. Most of the Republicans had been Whigs, including Lincoln. On the first ballot, Seward led Lincoln 173-1/2 to 102. On the second ballot, both candidates gained votes, but Seward's lead had shrunk to 2-1/2 votes. On the third ballot, Lincoln won. If there had been primaries in every state, we would have never heard of Lincoln. Seward had the political organization. He had the savvy necessary to run a good campaign. He had the name recognition, and of course, Lincoln had no public presence. He had no financial base. There is no way Lincoln could have sustained the long, dragged-out, monolithic campaign that others could have. In fact, Lincoln's opponents in his second nomination, Benjamin Wade, Salmon P. Chase, and Horace Greeley, would probably have been the front-runners in the 1860 primaries, had they existed. Lincoln would never have won a southern primary, and the border states would have been much more enamored of Greeley or Seward. By the time they got to Chicago, it would have been a "done deal," and Lincoln wouldn't have even been given the opportunity for a nominating speech. No VP offer, no cabinet positions, nothing. He would have died in his home in Springfield, an obscure lawyer.
My question is, "How many Lincolns have we missed in the past 40 years?" The monolithic, non-committal stand that candidates must take as they run through the expensive, bloated, inefficient process of primaries assures us that the cream will not rise to the top. The best drop out because they are human beings -- they have obligations to family and work. They live in the real world. They have real opinions, and not all of them are popular, but they are the stuff the person is really made of. When I see a pro-life Democratic candidate like Richard Gephardt change his views on abortion because he can't win nationwide primaries with what he really believes, I see a compromised candidate. For that matter, George H. W. Bush became pro-life and adopted Reagan's "voodoo economics" for just the opposite reasons -- votes in the 1988 Republican primaries. The candidates are so heavily influenced by the whims of their financial supporters, the demands of the press, and the need to say what all the states want to hear, that we don't really know what they mean. Instead, we get Hillary Clinton, preaching in a Baptist pulpit with a thick southern accent, and we all know she doesn't mean a word of it, but the votes are what are most important.
Is there any way to forego the primaries? We are settling for the worst possibilities by putting ourselves in that system. I'll go one step further with a stunning paradox -- we will never have another popular candidate until we get rid of popular elections. The best candidates we ever had were those who emerged from midnight deals that were hammered out in smoke-filled rooms. The convention halls were hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. People wanted to go home, and they were willing to wheel and deal in order to do it. From those crowded convention halls came some of our best presidents -- and some of the best also-rans, like William Jennings Bryan and Samuel J. Tilden.
As I look at the crowded field, I see no one that I feel will ever be on a coin. These homogenized, pasteurized, monolithic candidates are devoid of new ideas and owe favors to too many people to ever do anything historic. The final two will be the ones with the most votes, and we will know who they are, maybe six months before their respective political conventions. This means six extra months of partisan politics, mud-slinging, and character attacks. And before long, someone is going to pay a billion dollars to sit in a chair in the oval office.
We have no hope with "primary" presidents. I don't know if anything can be done.