Shoring up parties: Hedge against 'image' politics?

Something must be done to strengthen political parties in America. That is the message that Gerald M. Pomper, director of the Committee on Party Renewal and a Rutgers University professor, brings to the platform committees of both parties -- a message with growing popularity among politicians and political scientists.

Professor Pomper's CPR group wants: federal campaign funds fed to political parties as well as to presidential candidates; the protracted primary campaigns shortened and modified; regular television time provided for major political parties.

In a statement prepared for the Democratic Platform Committee, now holding hearings here, Dr. Pomper declares that America is threatened by "a politics of celebrities, of excessive media influence, of political fad-of-the-month clubs, of massive private financing by various 'fat cats' of state and congressional campaigns, of gun- for-hire campaign managers, of heightened interest in 'personalities' and lowered concern for policy, of manipulation and maneuver and management by self-chosen political elites."

Dr. Pomper's group, while small, is typical of protest movements over the country which are venting distaste with the present system of choosing presidential candidates, with its heavy emphasis on state primaries.

Politicians say they have never seen such widespread and near-unanimous feeling that something must be done to reform the candidate-selection process, from which emerges a president who is automatically a world figure. The forthcoming party conventions will have little more to do, it is asserted, than to ratify the nominations Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who have already been already selected in the primaries. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy promises to make a fight in the Democratic convention, Aug. 11-14 in New York, but he is not given much chance of success.

The decline of the responsible two-party system has been noted by political scientists: Donald R. Matthews of the University of Washington wrote in 1978: "The political power of a handful of elite reporters and newspapers, two wire services, and three broadcast networks, is sobering." Prof. James David Barber of Duke University wrote: "Thus far we Americans have been lucky, but there must be a better way to select our candidates."

Supporters of the two-party system argue that it promotes responsibility (with two well-organized groups which are responsive to a national consensus and exercise at least some discipline over their members who hold public office) and provides a screening of candidates by their peers.

In a proposed 10-part revitalization program the Committee on Party Renewal asks for fewer primaries; the channeling of public campaign funds through the parties; larger research and organization staffs; revision of state laws to tighten selection of local candidates; periodic party conventions; a dues-paying membership; and the allocation of television time to major parties. The group says:

"In particular, debates for president and other major offices should be under the control of party bodies, such as the national party committees. Access should also be provided for third-party and independent candidates with sizable followings."

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