Bring Back Those Smoke-Filled Rooms

Herman Cain is a bad risk. The latest improblio makes one long for the nomination processes of yesteryear.

The Herman Cain improblio may or may not have much substance behind it, but one thing we know by now: As a potential Republican candidate for president, he is a bad risk. Before Sharon Bialek stepped forward yesterday to add to the previous accusations an actual accuser name and an actual image of disgusting behavior, Cain seemed to be holding his own politically against the onslaught. A Washington Post-ABC poll on Friday had Cain still neck-in-neck with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It remains to be seen whether that will hold following Bialek’s news conference, Cain’s rebuttal news conference today and the subsequent fallout.

But all this raises another question: Is this any way to run a party nominating process? Come with me now to yesteryear, before all the so-called “reforms” created the current process, with its long string of primaries, most of which are irrelevant because the early ones swamp the later ones. In those long-ago days, the party professionals actually held sway over the selection, and one thing they took very seriously: the task of weeding out bad risks before they even got near the nomination.

In those days, most states selected their convention delegates through caucuses (generally controlled by the party machinery because ordinary folks didn’t participate in large numbers) or in state conventions (entirely controlled by the party machinery). So what was the role of the few primaries that got so much attention in places such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon and California? They were tests of vote-getting ability.

It worked like this: The party pros in what were colloquially called “smoke-filled rooms” (party caucuses and conventions) would make the decisions based on conviction, political log rolling, compromise, friendship patterns and, shall we say, party protection. But in order to know what kind of vote-getting potential the various contenders had, it was necessary to engineer a small number of primaries in certain traditionally primary states. Then the final decisions could be informed decisions.

For example, Democratic insiders in 1960 had to know whether John Kennedy, who was attractive and well connected, could actually garner votes as a Catholic. The first big test was in Wisconsin, where Kennedy went up against Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy beat Humphrey in that state, but not by a sufficient margin to allay the concerns of party pros. So Kennedy had to compete against Humphrey again in West Virginia, a state where the austere mountain culture wasn’t likely to take to just any Catholic. When Kennedy beat Humphrey in that state handily, the game was up and Kennedy had the nomination.

But meanwhile, those pros were also conducting their crucial vetting function—ensuring that nobody got the nomination who was going to be a bad risk. Were there scandals lurking in the man’s past—or present? Did he have certain weaknesses that would reveal themselves only under the pressures of a general-election campaign? Was he generally honest or a trimmer whose trimming would prove problematical at crucial moments? The voters weren’t expected to know the answers to these questions, but the professionals generally did. And they took their vetting function very seriously.

Fast-forward to the current system, in which there is no significant vetting by any politician’s peers. The voters themselves have to do the vetting, through the arduous process of primaries and, now, early-season debates of the kind we have seen in the current GOP nomination race. That might have worked for a time, when the nomination battles extended over several months, with numerous primaries in various crucial states.

Take, as an example, the 1984 Democratic primary battle. Colorado senator Gary Hart came from the back of the pack to win decisively in New Hampshire, putting him in position to dispatch the front-runner candidacy of former vice president Walter Mondale. He then annihilated Mondale in Maine’s caucuses. But Mondale fought to salvage his candidacy—barely—in three southern states on what was called “Super Tuesday.” There followed three big-state Mondale wins in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Now it looked like Hart was on the ropes. But he scrambled back in Ohio and Indiana in late-spring, setting up a final showdown in California and New Jersey. Hart won California handily but lost New Jersey. That was enough for Mondale to nail down the nomination.

This was a long process of primary vetting, which gave voters across the nation an opportunity to see these guys in action and draw conclusions. Hart’s name change (from his birth name of Hartpence) and a question about why he had lied about his age for years raised questions in the campaign that were never really answered. But voters could draw their own conclusions from that and much more information that tumbled out during the long nomination battle.

But now a psychological factor has taken hold of the process whereby the victor in early primaries dries up fund-raising for his opponents and otherwise siphons off support from the other contenders. Hence the process is usually over before it really begins, after maybe five real contests. The result is that the vetting process gets curtailed, with the very real danger that bad risks will actually get the nomination.

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