WASHINGTON — For years when I used to ride the planes and buses along the campaign trails, I would hear this grumbling complaint from my colleagues: "Why can't something be done about this terrible primary system?"
The basic criticism hasn't changed. Reporters and pundits of today's political world are still saying what we said: That early primaries gave the winner an unfair momentum and, thus, the nomination was decided early - before many of the big states and much of the populace really had any say in the outcome.
Unfair, unfair, unfair. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
But just the other day, we had a highly regarded political leader of the recent past - William E. Brock - as a breakfast guest, and only a relative handful of those grumbling reporters showed up to hear what Mr. Brock is doing to try to change the primaries into a more democratic shape.
A former congressman, US senator, labor secretary, and GOP party chairman, Brock heads a commission that seems on the verge of proposing to GOP leaders a plan in which a number (perhaps 10) of the smallest-population states would vote first. Then a group of the next-larger states would vote. And, then, finally, the biggest states would vote.
This plan, as Brock sees it, would make it difficult for any candidate to amass a majority of delegates until late in the primaries - thus bringing Republicans from all over the country into the presidential-nomination process.
Brock admits that there is a very difficult road ahead before this or any alternative reform plan can be put in place. But he says he received an enthusiastic response from both GOP national chairman Jim Nicholson and Democratic chairman Joe Andrew when he met with them the other day. And he said these two leaders are coordinating their efforts to agree on a plan that they can push forward at their conventions this summer.
The reporters who turned up for the breakfast (about a third of those on the call list) did show a lively interest in what Brock was doing. The questions, good questions, kept coming. Everyone wanted to know how this change could take place and how likely it would come about.
Frankly, I got lost as Brock detailed the intricate route that would have to be followed before this reform would take life. First, there would have to be party-leadership backing, followed by delegate backing, followed by a resolution passed by the delegates at the upcoming national conventions. That resolution would then be taken to state legislatures to be enacted.
The process would be something like that - at least for the Republicans. Brock told us that the Democratic leaders might find this "population" plan he's favoring more difficult to implement "in order to ensure diversity."
In previous years, two former chairmen of the two parties - Democrat Paul Kirk and Republican Frank Fahrenkopf - were pushing a primary-reform plan in which the country would be divided into four regions.
I understood that there would be a selection by lot to determine the order in which the regions would vote initially. And then, in ensuing primaries, the voting would rotate from region to region in that order.
Anyway, that "geography primary" idea, while still around, has one basic flaw: Whatever region would be first to vote would contain enough big states to very likely give the winner so many delegates that he or she might well pick up an unstoppable momentum.
Brock says that this year reform may finally take place, that there's an immense amount of public dissatisfaction with the primaries we have just been through, and that this unhappiness is stirring the politicians to take action.
We certainly hope so. Next to the ugliness of campaign fund-raising, the lack of full, across-the-country participation in our presidential primaries is the glaring political problem of the day.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society