Washington — It seems that someone should step up and say that the much-criticized primary system probably needs reform -- but that by ending up with the selection of Carter and Reagan it has worked quite well this year, if you are willing to concede that the nominating process is designed to reflect the desires of the voters.
Political analyst and pundit Ben Wattenberg was pointing this out the other day at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "You can make a good case," he said, "that the primaries were responsive to the wishes of the American people. Both candidates that emerged were the conservatives in the pack -- and there is certainly a conservative trend at work in this country."
The Wattenberg thesis is a persuasive one, particularly when he adds, with a smile, that what the American people really want is a "conservative-welfare" system. That is, it seems that the "new conservatism" contains this contradiction:
People in growing numbers are calling for less government spending, but at the same time they want to hang on to all the social benefits that are coming their way.
No one is talking about giving up social security, for example. Yet old-timers remember how the conservatives of yesteryear were warning that social security would usher in socialism.
The long-drawn-out primaries are much too much. A shortenging would be most welcome to the participants, the media, and, most important, the voting public.
But, beyond noting that the final choices emerging from the long process this year probably reflected the desires of the majority of voters, it can also be observed that we did learn some things as a result of this year's primary period.
* The voting went on long enough for the results to begin to show a strong protest vote against the President with people particularly registering their unhappiness over the way he was handling the economy.
Had the primaries ended early, it is possible that the country would still be rallying around him because of the seizure of the hostages and primaries invasion of Afghanistan. Thus, the primaries might have ended without reflecting the President's basic weakness with the electorate, a political vulnerability that began to show up more clearly as time went on the hostages and the Soviets stayed right where they were.
* A quick, efficient primary process might well have kept John Anderson from emerging. He never won a single primary, of course, but as he moved along, finishing high here and there, he kind of poked his way upward to recognition.
Now some (certainly the President and perhaps Ronald Reagan before the race is over) will say that Anderson's rise was more of a nuisance than a help. But he was a product of the disorganized primary process and probably would have been simply an also-ran in a system that, perhaps regionally and over a short span of weeks, selected a presidential candidate for each party.
* A primary system that was refreshingly short might well prevent a candidate from recovering from early failures. For example, Reagan slipped in some of the early going. In fact, for a while George Bush looked like the golden boy. But Reagan had time to rally, Particularly during the Southern primaries, and Bush's slip began.
However, the primaries continued with Bush still able to cling by a fingernail. It seems improbable now, but had Bush been able to win a couple more primaries before he won in Michigan, he just might have had time to turn things around -- time to regain the momentum.
Anyway, this terrible primary process did and does leave room for a comeback -- for people to take second looks at candidates and for later events to be reflected in later votes.
In talking to reporters over breakfast the other day, Morris (Mo) Udall, was talking about the need for shortening the primary period. He got to disliking the process intensely when he was running for president four years ago. So, having suffered the fatigue of campaigning interminably, Udall has a reform plan , one that basically, would set a few predetermined dates when all the states wanting primaries would have to schedule them. Udall's is one of a number of plans that would seek to make tidiness out of chaos.
But would reform come? Probably not, says Udall. "There's a lot of talk about it now," he says, "but, as always, people will drop the subject after the election -- until the primaries are here again four years from now and it's too late to change."
But another reason why primary reform is so protracted may be that politicians see just enough value in the old system to keep them from making a change -- particularly since all the current alternative plans seems to cause some new problems while correcting others.