Washington — At the last presidential election only 54 percent of the voters bothered to vote. This year a great many voters seem even less satisfied with a probable choice between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. Is there a better way of choosing candidates?
After the turbulent democratic Chicago convention in 1968 that nominated Hubert Humphrey some felt that the real will of the party was not represented. Three Democratic commissions examined the matter. They encouraged a process already under way: this reduced the role of the party elite (or "boses") in the screening process and encouraged participation of the rank and file, largely in state primaries.
In 1968, 17 primaries picked about 40 percent of the convention delegates. In 1976, 30 primaries picked 75 percent. In 1980, 35 primaries will pick 80 percent. Critics charge this "participatory" system has gone alarmingly far. On the other hand, supporters of the new emphasis cite the case of Sen. Estes Kefauver in 1952 when he sept all the primaries except one, but the party leadership preferred Adlai Stevenson, the reform Governor of Illinois, and nominated him.It was an example of the old screening process. (For balance, it must be remembered that the screening process once gave the nation Warren Harding, from a "smoke-filled room.")
What's wrong with the current process? Well, it's enormously cumbersome. An election takes a couple of years. Jimmy Carter started running three years ahead of time. Ronald Reagan has been running eight years. The candidate, it is charged, must quit public office and take his case not to his political peers and the professionals who know him, but to the amateurs in the various state primaries.
Commenting sourly on the system. Dr. Austin Ranney, resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute here, observes that since the reforms we have had four presidential candidates: "One was the first president in history to be forced to resign from office. Another received the lowest vote a presidential candidate has ever gotten from a major party (George McGovern.) The third was the first president since Herbert Hoover to be denied re-election. (Gerald Ford). And the fourth now has the lowest showing in the polls of any incumbent president since polls have been taken."
This is certainly unfair, nevertheless there does seem to be disillusionment. In 1968 there was a 61 percent voter turnout. In 1972 it was 55 percent; in 1976, 54 percent. The addition of younger voters brought participation down. More recently Harris and Gallup polls have asked people whether they thought the election "made a great deal of difference?" Prior to 1968 about 65 percent said "yes." Now only 33 percent it does. Dr. Ranney (who participated in an American Enterprise Institute forum the other day on "Choosing presidential candidates" from which these quotations are taken) notes also a discouraging growth of feeling that "ordinary people do not have any say in what goes on in our government."
David S. Broder, the able political writer of the Washington Post, thinks the primary system gives an unnatural and unhealthy significance to the role of the mass media. The media can't screen candidates: they spends most of their space on who won or who will win and not on issues. It is a sporting event. There is an "unhealthy projection of the mass media into a determinative role," he feels.
There is indeed something wrong with this process, I think. We all favor democracy but should it be representative democracy, or participatory democracy? The latter is fine in theory but cumbersome in practice. You can't run Washington like a New England town meeting. And it is equally difficult, I think, to select an adequate presidential candidate by a series of 35 primaries. "I have a nagging feeling that the process is designed to exclude our best candidates," says Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana.
For better or worse, America has made a profound change in its way of picking presidents in the past decade -- as far reaching a change in our system of government as in most of our 25 written amendments to the Constitution. A good many people are just discovering this and are unhappy. I propose a national commission to consider the whole matter in 1981 after the election. The chairman should be Gerald Ford. I think the present primary system is out of hand.