Let's Hear It For The Presidential Election Process!
By Jeff Smith
SUMMON TO MIND the squirreliest, most erratic and potentially dangerous person you know, and he's probably been described more than once as an accident waiting to happen.
Summon up your favorite form of government--I'm guessing the majority of you incline toward democracy--and the same description applies, almost. Democracy, as it has come to be practiced in this, its most popular if not purest form, is an accident continuously happening. It doesn't even have to wait.
This marvelous institution for the self-governance of man, this triumph of reason over brute force, this calculated submission of individual will and freedom to the greater good of public will and freedom, is the Rodney Dangerfield of political systems. As Winston Churchill put it, "the worst possible form of government except all those others forms."
I've been a fan of democracy since I was 10 years old and watched the Republicans nominate Ike for his second term on our first TV set. My mom and dad were obviously having such a hell of swell time watching the candidates and delegates and potentates carrying on like a bunch of power-drunk Shriners, that it struck me as wonderful a country as great as the United States of America ran itself in such a fun-loving, entertaining and whimsical manner.
Three subsequent decades of observation and rumination have convinced me the operating system of the universe is chaos, and that the most appropriate methodology for conducting the affairs of humankind, therefore, is the crapshoot. And every four years since that first wonderful summer of black-and-white, gavel-to-gavel convention coverage I have been witness to the reaffirmation of this thesis.
Yet still the wide-eyed true-believer of my high school years bridles at the lunacy of the Alaska straw-poll, the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary. Is this any way to run a railroad? Well, hell no, but we're not running a railroad here, this is just a presidential election, don't take it so seriously. But we're engaged in the business of selecting the nominees to elect the leader of the Free World...
Yes. So what's your point?
Mainline political junkies are so far beyond reason they don't even think it odd that a quarter of a billion people leave a decision of this magnitude to about as many voters as Jim Click could get in his backyard for ribs and cornbread. And from parts of the country that don't even factor into the demographics of your major fast-food franchisers. I remember the time when I was still doing the Arizona Illustrated roundtable with Peggy and the boys and she was getting all clammy over the impending New Hampshire Primary, and I raised my quadrennial question as to why in the hell does the entire U.S. political circus hold its breath over what a handful of Swedes and Danes way the hell over in the corner of what is practically Canada have to say about a pack of wannabees, most of whom will be forgotten by November?
And instead of them saying, "By God, Jeff, you've cut right to the heart of the matter once again!" I caught a ration of shit from Hector, the short producer, over offending that long-suffering oppressed minority, the Protestant, Northern European White People. Oh, please.
Of course the answer to the question from the paragraph before last is that it is a circus, American politics. Logic and reason would militate against running off to the northernmost tier of states in the dead of winter to watch a lot of desperately sick egos trying to appeal to a very small group of out-of-the mainstream voters, but then logic and reason are not within the job description of the post these sick puppies seek. The guy who ultimately draws the short straw, who gets the job they all so passionately want, is going to have to deal with psychopaths like Newt (Anglo-Saxon for "small, partially developed toady sort of thing") Gingrich and troglodytes like Jesse Helms.
No, that would be too quick and easy. Watching the candidates wade through hip-deep snow in New Hampshire, or riding bicycles across Iowa, or doing whatever it is they do to prove their political manhood in Alaska or Louisiana (state motto: "He shore has a purty mouth, don't 'e?") tells the voters a lot of important stuff about how, as president, a man will handle adversity such as snow, bicyles and Louisiana.
We need to know these things. And the most widely discussed alternative to the present chaotic system of caucuses, primaries, preference polls and delegate elections--direct popular vote by interactive computer link-up--would not give us the background information we need. Such as how come Steve Forbes' mom dresses him so funny?
Ironically, the high-tech computer age has restored to us the possibility of the pure democracy of ancient Athens or, closer to home, Concord, New Hampshire. We could all turn on our TV sets, just like we do for the Superbowl or Melrose Place and then dial a 900 number--Hi. Are you naked? I'm naked?--wrong number, to cast our vote for President, and within seconds we'd all know the winner is...
You see we do need a certain amount of old-time politics, preceding even the most state-of-the-art, high-tech, purely democratic kind of presidential election. And after all, these pre-convention dog-and-pony shows don't elect a president, they only serve to demonstrate the momentary whim of the politically inclined, prior to anything binding actually happening.
To return to our opening metaphor of the continuous accident not waiting to happen: Think of this process as a series of stubbed toes, pratfalls, fender-benders and multi-vehicle non-fatalities, prior to the real train wreck that comes in November. After which the forgotten-but-not-gone Electoral College meets, metaphorically again, in January to actually elect an official President.
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