A Modest Proposal

March/​April 1996 • Policy Report

Every four years, the combination of the Olympic games and thepresidential election invites a conclusion that our process for selectingthe president does not work well by comparison.

To get to the Olympics, the world’s best athletes participatein a series of runoffs for the opportunity to compete in thefinal in each sport. On any given day, conditions may favor oneathlete or another, but there is little doubt that the gold medalwinner is at least one of the several best athletes in the worldin that sport.

The presidential primaries, in contrast, select a nominee fromthose who win a plurality of the party faithful in a series ofstate contests — rather than from those most qualified to buildthe broad national coalition necessary to win the presidency.That increases the relative influence of doctrinaire single‐​issue votersin each party. Moreover, the campaign finance laws favor two typesof candidates: those who are effective in raising a large numberof small contributions and those few with enough independentwealth to finance their own campaigns. The recent campaigns ofRoss Perot and Steve Forbes, for example, were an artificialconsequence of those laws.

The biases in out present selection process favor presidentialcandidates with characteristics that are only incidentallyrelated to those necessary to govern. It is as if the winners inthe 400‐​meter high hurdles semifinals were selected to compete inthe shot put finals. Two changes would allow us to select better qualifiedcandidates.

My first suggestion is to restore the party convention as theonly forum for selecting, as distinct from merely affirming, the party’spresidential nominee. The primaries would be limited to one ineach of four to six regions and would serve mainly to test acandidate’s campaigning skills. The primary state in each regionwould be selected by lottery, or maybe the states could bid forthe primary. The total number of delegates selected by theprimaries, however, would be smaller than that necessary for the nomination. Mostof the other delegates, I suggest, should be candidates for otherelected offices and others who have a large stake in the electionof their party’s presidential nominee.

My second suggestion is to eliminate all limits on campaigncontributions, both by contribution and by candidates. The only remainingrequirement would be full and transparent disclosure of all contributions oversome nominal amount. Most advocates of campaign finance limitsare also advocates of big government; they want to maintain alarge claim on the nation’s economy but limit the role of moneyin politics. Given the important issues at stake in presidentialelections, we probably spend too little on politics. The onlyeffective way to reduce the role of money in politics is toreduce the role of government in the economy.

It is probably already too late to avoid an unfortunateoutcome of the present process for selecting the Republicanpresidential candidate in 1996. It is not too late, however, toavoid a repeat of this problem in 2000. On this issue, thebeginning of wisdom is to recognize that the“democratic” reforms of primaries and campaign financelimits have seriously weakened our democracy.

About the Author