The 2016 Race Is Deja Vu All Over Again

It was bound to happen again. The real surprise is that it took this long. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not accidents coughed up by history. They’re the foreseeable products of a flawed political reform instituted a half century ago.

The reform grew out of the bitter 1968 Democratic nominating race, which was fought against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The anti-war challenges of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy drove President Lyndon Johnson from the race. Yet, party leaders, who controlled most of the convention delegates, picked Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the presidential nominee even though he had not entered a single primary.

Insurgent Democrats were outraged, and after Humphrey narrowly lost the general election, they engineered a change in the nominating process. State parties were instructed to choose their convention delegates through either a primary election or a caucus open to all registered party voters.

The reform had obvious appeal. What could be more democratic than giving control of presidential nominations to the voters?

The problem with this reasoning is the assumption that voters can handle any task they’re given. Reformers failed to recognize that their nominating system would attract a large field of contenders. The November election offers the voters a choice between two contenders, who represent opposing party philosophies, easing the voters’ task. In the nominating race, however, the candidates all wear the same label and can number in the double digits, as in this year’s Republican contest. How do you make heads or tails of that many possibilities?

The reformers also didn’t recognize that their nominating system would be brokered by the news media. It’s hard to imagine an intermediary less suited to the task. Journalists are not equipped for the job of sorting the candidates by their fitness for the presidency. Journalists are in the business of finding good stories.

Donald Trump is a good story. The press has given him what every candidate seeks — reams of coverage. Even the media’s attacks are a boon. Republicans hate the press and its attacks are a seal of approval for a Republican candidate. The media are to Trump as they are to ISIS. The more outrageous the act, the more likely it is to get headlines. And when the press combines the headlines with criticism, the true believers are more convinced than ever that they’re on the right path.

The Sanders story is different but we’ve seen it many times before. It’s David vs. Goliath, which requires the press to pump up David and tear down Goliath. The damaging Clinton emails that have made headlines for months on end testify to the truth of journalist Walter Lippmann’s claim that the media “make of moles mountains, and of mountains moles.”

Are the 2016 nominating races as unique as they’ve been portrayed to be? Actually, no. They resemble the 1972 and 1976 presidential campaigns — the first to be waged under the reformed nominating system.

George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination with a mere 25 percent of the primary election vote. He was positioned to the left of his Democratic rivals, who divided the moderate vote, enabling McGovern to slip through to nomination. In the November election, he got clobbered by a margin of 61 percent to 38 percent.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination even though he, too, received far less than a majority of the primary vote. Carter’s luck was that he was to the right of his seven Democratic rivals, who divided the majority of the vote. When the race finally narrowed to two candidates, Carter lost every single primary. However, his delegate lead by then was insurmountable. Although Carter then narrowly won the November election, he faltered at governing. His policy ideas were too middle-of-the-road to suit the liberal Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

The McGovern and Carter candidacies convinced Democratic leaders, as well as those on the Republican side, that the reformed nominating system was risky, and they moved to rein it in. Super delegates, chosen outside of the primaries and caucuses, were devised as a way to give party leaders a voice at the conventions. Money and endorsements were funneled toward establishment candidates as a means of giving them a boost. States stacked their primaries, à la Super Tuesday, in order to help candidates who could raise the huge sum of money required to mount a large-scale, multi-state TV ad campaign.

These adjustments largely worked as intended. Nevertheless, the possibility was always there that the nominating process could go haywire. It’s inherent in the system’s design.

Haywire Day has arrived, and with an alarming twist. It’s conceivable that both parties, not just one, could nominate a candidate who in earlier times would have been thought ill-suited for the presidency.

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