Of primary importance

I have yet to meet a single political leader of consequence in either party who believes that this long, meandering sequence of state- by-state primaries is any way to choose the president of the United States.

Many think it is the worst conceivable way to determine the presidential nominees. All seem to agree that something better needs to be devised before another four years confront us with its repetition.

It is unbearably time-consuming. Only unemployed politicians can really devote themselves to it full-time, or perhaps one who can campaign standing still in the Rose Garden at the White House. That's not good enough.

One critic sees the unending primary system as a kind of "prolonged media circus," and a political scientist puts her finger on its central weakness by noting that "the requirements for success in the nominating process are no longer the requirements for successful government."

I blame the system far more than the media. But what has been happening week after week is that the biggest news from the campaign is not what the candidates are saying about why they should be president, but what the nightly newcasts and the newspaper headlines are reporting about how each primary is coming out and how the candidates are going to do next time. The candidates are so busy traveling from state to state and shopping center to shopping center that they have little time to engage in any thoughtful discussion of what they would do as president.

The polls devote themselves to what is likely to happen and to trying to find out afterward why it happened differently than they predicted.

Two eminently qualified Republican candidates, Sen. Howard Baker and John Connally, had to give up before anything like a majority of voters had participated. There is not enough flexibility in the system to permit voters to have second thoughts before the convention.

Once the primaries have got well underway, there is no good opportunity for new contenders to enter the race. This is what happened to former President Gerald Ford, who many Republicans may have wanted to support.

There is little doubt in my mind that something better is needed.

I am not proposing to resurrect the old big- city political machines as major forces in influencing the national conventions. The nominating reforms which took place in the early sixties were a legitimate protest against conventions sometimes dominated by the political bosses. Democracy ought to express itself in the selection of the nominees as well as in the selection of the president.

And it would be well to remind ourselves that in the main the political leaders, who had a large voice at the conventions, did an outstanding job in picking the nominees as far back as I watched the political process.

There were deals and there were compromises. But when you measure the usefulness of the national convention by the quality and fitness of the candidates they nominated, the record compares more than favorably with that of the more recent state-by-state primaries.

The names of the convention winners are still easily remembered -- Herbert Hoover, Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, and Hubert Humphrey. Those who won nominations under the primary system include Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Richard Nixon , Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Those who emerged from the so-called "smoke-filled rooms" look pretty good.

So-called party reform gave us the merry- go-round of the present primaries, and the parties ought to repair what they have done. They could move in two directions. There might be merit in returning to the convention system by having it buttressed by a national advisory primary so that the delegates would have the guidance of popular opinion.

But it strikes me that most of the obvious weaknesses of the primary system could be dissolved by having four or five regional primary elections over a period of a few weeks. This would save time and money, center the campaign on the candidates themselves, not focus it so dominantly on how they are doing week after week, and, I believe, it would bring out a far higher percentage of voters.

Something needs to be done.

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