Why foreigners are mystified by US system of election-by-ordeal. US election process: bane to some, boon to Iowa

By , Editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor

TRY explaining the Iowa caucuses or Super Tuesday to a German or Indian visitor. Or a Soviet spectator, for that matter. It's not easy. De-mystifying baseball may actually be simpler. Why is the big-city candidate with a 14-page position paper on ag policy asking a hog farmer about his milk production? Why is the next-president-of-the-United States referring to breeding bulls as steers?

When Richard Nixon was running for governor of California, he once grabbed a bunch of carrots handed to him by a King City drum majorette, hoisted it high, and said it was wonderful to be back where real people harvested such beautiful produce ``right off the vine.'' A lot of farmers guffawed and voted against the city slicker who had lost his roots.

What the European or Japanese or African observer of the quadrennial American rite usually wants to know is not why Pete duPont is playing miniature golf on the eve of the Iowa caucuses (should he have gone bowling?), but whether the meandering, ever-longer system of primaries and straw polls and caucuses works to produce leadership in what is still a major world policeman and banker (as well as super-debtor and super-consumer of world fuel and exports).

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It's hard to convince visitors that the primary obstacle course does so. A European may know that Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia is a sophisticated statesman on defense and foreign policy. Why, he politely asks, isn't Senator Nunn a candidate? You answer that Southern Democratic Party wise men like Robert Strauss tried and failed last spring to sell a strategy that would have wooed a candidate like Mr. Nunn. The Strauss plan would have steered him out of Iowa and New Hampshire and had him enter the fray only in his native Southern primaries on Super Tuesday.

Well, says the visitor, isn't that what Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee is doing? Why can't Nunn?

With such obviously capable politicians as Nunn, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton out of the race, the argument that the long, grueling process both tests and attracts the best talent seems to spring a leak.

The boys and girls on the back of the bus - the media covering the American campaigns - have long joined political science professors in arguing that it is precisely the tough day-in-day-out grind of the primaries that shows voters who can stand up to the later grind of the Oval Office - and who can't. To run Camelot, you need not the pol who can wrest the sword from the stone but the one who can shake the most hands at plant gates, sound fresh repeating the Basic Speech hundreds of times, and sleep in the most Ramada Inns.

There's some substance to this argument. But only some. At its extreme, this theory serves just as well if you want to pick the toughest infighter to run the Politburo. The candidate who can make the same stump speech sound fresh and earnest on its 90th repetition is not necessarily the most creative thinker, best leader, toughest administrator, wisest long-term planner, or most savvy improviser facing a crisis.

One factor that watchers from the Communist bloc often miss is the role the American campaign plays in renewing the government. Much has been made of the lack of a formal system for succession in dictatorships (or oligarchies) of right or left. But that is only part of the problem.

When a new leader does arrive, he must spend many months, perhaps years, replacing dead wood throughout the government. His party doesn't come to power with him. It's already there, a source of both new blood and dead wood.

One role of the long campaign season is to help change the guard, and sometimes the philosophy of the incumbent or challenging party. The process starts with party infighting over changes in the rules governing the campaign.

But here, too, visiting commentators note inefficiency. The parliamentary system provides for replenishing of both leadership and lower platoons with a much shorter turnaround time. And, because its out-of-power party usually has a `shadow cabinet' in parliament, it avoids one hazard of the US campaign: the winning candidate who has been too busy running the primary gantlet to think about, much less form, his cabinet.

Even so careful a planner as John F. Kennedy picked secretaries of state and defense whom he didn't know personally - and only after November.

To do otherwise smacks of smugness. But it's hard to create a smooth-running team with long-range plans in the short pre-inaugural period. And especially hard when the preceding year has been consumed with exhausting campaign logistics.

There's logic in testing candidates thoroughly. There's logic in sending their ideas on economic, social, and foreign policies through the crucible of different regional outlooks.

But if the trial-by-fire before the White House undermines rather than prepares for the trial-by-fire in the White House, changes are needed. The results may not have to play as well in Perugia as in Peoria. But they ought at least to make sense to both places.

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