The Founders thought that the president should be a man of “continental character.” Parties have often fallen short of that goal, but have nonetheless been critical in selecting able candidates. This year the Republican Party, in abdication to its media partners, is failing to offer the American public even a third rate candidate for president.
In his essay on the 1980 campaign, the late political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams bewailed that the parties, since the reforms of the early Seventies, had been offering the public a steady rollout of the second rate. Pre-Seventies professional parties, he argued, had done a much better job of elevating first rate candidates.
Two characteristics of the 1980 campaign have only metastasized: “In becoming a front-runner, established celebrities have an edge,” wrote McWilliams; and “The problem does not lie with the supposed ideological biases of the media; the worst distortions result from the desire to make political news exciting.”
This year the Republican Party, with a giant field of the unqualified stampeding toward the debates, ducked a confrontation with its sub-mediocrities and delegated debate participation choices to its media partners, which subbed the job out to polls. To point out just one oddity, the polls placed Ben Carson in the main event debates and Senator Lindsey Graham at the “kids table.” Carson’s foreign policy adviser recently told the New York Times that, struggle as he might, he could not penetrate Carson’s brain with any foreign policy information the candidate could grasp and retain. Graham was a member of the House of Representatives for eight years and a United States Senator since 2003. He has served as a Judge Advocate in the Air Force, South Carolina Air National Guard, and U.S. Air Force Reserve. He has given national security more thought than the rest of the field combined. But in 2015, serious people need not apply.
The most established celebrity, and the man who provides the most exciting political news, is Donald Trump. One of his major qualifications to ascend to the stature of continental character is his record as a ratings-producing reality show star. Yes, he’s racist, sexist, xenophobic, a bully, and probably unstable with an untreated narcissistic disorder. He’s great for debate ratings – corporate media partners have charged record advertising rates, a wonderful return on their investment. In the unlikely event he becomes the nominee, party figures across the country will abandon the ticket. The party does little; it has a thumb sucking problem that would put Sissy Hankshaw in awe.
Things don’t look much better elsewhere. Two candidates who might appeal to the establishment, Gov. John Kasich and former Gov. Jeb Bush, are stuck, their softness on immigration and basic decency seeming to disqualify them. Senator Ted Cruz, whose talent for ugliness approaches that of Trump, is on the move. Senator Marco Rubio has not capitalized on decent debate performances. Gov. Chris Christie seems to be cresting, at least so far as someone who runs at 3% in polls can be said to surge. So impressed are the party elders that only four of thirty-one Republican governors and ten of fifty-four GOP Senators have endorsed. If The Party Decides (a book I am teaching this semester), then The Party seems unable to Decide. Its default may leave the decision to a public educated in political affairs by television advertising.
On the Democratic side, the front runner is former First Lady, former United States Senator, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; even a skeptical Professor McWilliams would likely have considered her first-rate. That is just as well. Of the four candidates who have made it onto the debate stage with her, three (Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chaffee) were not even career members of the Democratic Party. Senator Sanders, her main rival, seemed unable or unwilling to discuss details of national security in a debate the day after the Paris attacks.
Observing a nomination process dominated by celebrities and media, Professor McWilliams yearned for the return of strong parties. One suggestion was that the parties hold a pre-primary convention to determine which candidates should appear on primary and caucus ballots (we do this in Massachusetts). After 2016 the parties would do well to reassert their authority.