Political grumbling - and making do. Would we really want campaigns shorter, less burdensome?

CAMPAIGN '88, barely started, is already picking up familiar burs of criticism: The process is too long and costly. ``Peer review'' of the candidates is minimal. Television dominates. Nominees lack sufficient caliber - hence the deriding of the male Democratic contenders as ``the seven dwarfs.'' The yearning for some better means of choosing candidates in part reflects a restless optimism long evident in American politics - the nation's belief in its capacity for continuing improvement. The general grumbling also reveals, however, surprising misinformation and mistaken assumptions about how the present system works and how it can be improved. Too media centered?

The media play a striking and immense role in picking presidents. We now have, it is said, a three-party system - CBS, NBC, and ABC. This electoral role is just one aspect of the press's expanding presence throughout the governing process. In 1959 Douglass Cater described the press as ``the fourth branch of government,'' which was apt if then a bit premature. Today journalists are no longer outsiders reporting on the real movers and shakers of politics; they have become key players.

If the deficiencies of every important political institution must be considered, those of the press cannot be an exception. Does the press focus too much on the ``horse race'' aspects of presidential selection - on who's ahead rather than on how they might govern? Does it distort perspective as it hypes the early nomination contests in Iowa and New Hampshire? Of course it does, and its list of failings is longer still.

But political parties will never again dominate communication on candidates and elections as they once did. An independent press will certainly dominate this process. Thus the only question worth pondering is how the press can do its job better.

For a start, the national press should be viewed as a major political institution, one that is as properly an object of reform efforts as are parties, legislatures, courts or the executive branch - and that like them will have its share of problems no matter how sensibly it is organized. The best and the brightest?

Columnist Tom Wicker has argued that ``American political parties, in reforming themselves into a presidential-election system that requires primary campaigns in more than 30 states over a minimum of 18 months, at horrendous cost in money and personal effort, have reformed a lot of good and honorable people out of even trying to be president.'' Such concerns bubble up whenever an able politician touted for the presidency, such as Sen. Sam Nunn, announces that he will not run.

Today's long and arduous presidential campaigns certainly do put a daunting burden on the candidates. But is there a satisfactory alternative to this gauntlet, given other fixed properties of the system? How someone seeking the highest elective office is to convince his fellow citizens that he is worthy of it is a problem for every democracy. In some countries there is a ``ministerial ladder'' to be climbed. A promising politician is given a junior ministry in his party's government and then, if the confidence seems merited, given more demanding posts. His designation as party leader, and if a legislative majority is conferred, as prime minister, is the top rung. Ministerial progression rarely works in this neat, idealized fashion, but parliamentary systems do use it as a means of ``credentialing'' their top leadership. The United States has never had this option, however, given its separation of powers and the weakly organized and undisciplined political parties such a system requires.

In the US, some who would be president have previously held major national posts, or have otherwise achieved broad public recognition. Walter Mondale in his 1984 run and George Bush this time are examples. But in virtually every election in the country's history some who had not previously established themselves as national figures have sought the presidency. At times many of them have used as their springboard their leadership of an enduring party bloc or faction. The standing Sen. Richard Russell long enjoyed among Southern Democrats is a case in point. As these blocs have weakened, however, in response to a nationalizing of the electorate and the development of media-centered campaigns, would-be nominees have found it harder to establish themselves.

What is left for capable politicians with substantial accomplishments but not national stature who want to ``go national''? They can present themselves in long presidential campaigns where party activists and rank-and-file voters have ample opportunity to look them over; they must do their utmost to convince this jury they are qualified for the country's highest office. Would those of us who form the juries really want the campaigns to be shorter and otherwise less burdensome on these candidates? As the current campaign progresses, we have a chance to see presidential hopefuls not previously well known to us operate in a variety of contexts which - if not perfectly reflective of the demands of the presidency - unquestionably give us insight into their leadership ability, policy perspectives, personalities, and ethical judgment under pressure. The current credentialing system, based on extended campaign exposure, emerged when no satisfactory functional alternative could be found. It can be replaced only when and if such alternatives are put in place. No convincing practical alternative has been put forward. Peer review weak?

One often hears that we have seriously eroded ``peer review'' in our current nominee selection system. It is said the old party-centered selection arrangements worked better, because they provided for decisive final scrutiny of would-be nominees by those who knew them best, the party leaders and officeholders who were their natural peers. The 1952 Democratic nomination contest is cited as an example of the special merit of the old order. Estes Kefauver charged through the presidential primaries like a freight train, winning 65 percent of all votes cast. Still, party leaders didn't think Kefauver had the right stuff, and it was bye-bye Estes and hello Adlai Stevenson.

It is hard to see, though, how today's system has short-circuited peer judgment. Throughout long campaigns candidates are examined in minute detail by many different political elites: among them, those who give money to campaigns and those who staff them; the ubiquitous national press; and traditional party leaders, such as state and county chairmen. The old guard may find it annoying to share the review process with newcomers, especially the press. Candidates' peers among institutional leaders and activists may fail to look hard and close enough. But surely peer review is alive and well. Just ask Gary Hart - who in one week fell from front-runner all the way out of the race by one of the most ruthless peer judgments in American history.

In 1912 the then-existing system of nominee selection produced contenders Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. That's impressive. Eight years later the same institution yielded Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Depressing. Like its predecessors, the present system is likely to turn out nominees of widely varying caliber. As part of a much wider political context, it is not easily changed.

Given these factors, it makes sense to stop grumbling and concentrate on making the most of the nomination system we have.

Everett Carll Ladd is a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.

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