The first real votes in the presidential campaign won’t be cast until next week, but it already feels as if the race has been going on forever. Indeed, for those who follow politics closely, that’s not far from the truth since the last election seems like it never really ended. But the vast majority of Americans are only dimly aware of the contest for the Republican nomination. They are Democrats or independents with no stake in the outcome, or too busy with work, family and the new season of “American Idol” to focus on something they don’t need to make up their minds about for 10 more months.
It’s not hard to find fault with our election process. Washington Post columnist Matt Miller expressed many of them in a recent column. Allowing a small, idiosyncratic state like Iowa to have such an outsized influence in our presidential nominating process makes no sense, he says. It elevates groveling and pandering to small groups to an art form, often forcing contenders into ridiculously contortions as they try desperately to twist their positions into a form that some local activist finds acceptable.
These things are all true. One can also criticize the role of New Hampshire, where the first real primary will take place on Jan. 10. Nor is South Carolina, where the next primary will take place on Jan. 21, particularly representative of the nation as a whole. It’s not until the Florida primary on Jan. 31 that the candidates will finally compete in a state with a large and diverse population, where national issues, rather than those of parochial interest, are likely to predominate.
But for all its faults, our current system for choosing a president does what it is supposed to do. If one thinks about it, all of the skills one would want a president to have are on full display and the candidates are forced to demonstrate competence in all of them. Let’s go down the list.
Basic knowledge. This one is so obvious it hardly needs mentioning. Yet it is now clear that some of the candidates who were flying high in the polls at various times are sadly lacking in this department. It’s not so much that they are insufficiently bright to be president as that they don’t have the breadth of knowledge or experience that the job requires. Nor, apparently, did they think it sufficiently important to acquire advisers who could get them up to speed quickly and provide them with stock answers to questions that inevitably were going to come up.
Communication skills. Having the necessary knowledge to be president is not very valuable if a candidate lacks the ability to communicate his ideas. Of course, any of them can hire a top speechwriter and a coach to help them rehearse a big speech to where it sounds pretty good. But there isn’t much that any speechwriter can do to help a candidate on the stump forced to respond extemporaneously to questions from potential voters or in a televised debate where answers must not only be coherent but pithy and clever as well.
Organizational skill. The president is, of course, in charge of a large governmental apparatus. He or she doesn’t run it alone, but with cabinet secretaries and thousands of advisers. Managing these people is in many ways the president’s principal job. He has to know who he can trust to carry out an assigned task, who can keep a secret, who will go off on their own without close supervision and so on. And it’s important to know whether a candidate is the sort of person who needs to micromanage his campaign or whether he is able to prioritize his time efficiently, hire competent staff and rely on their judgment. Thus we see that large national campaigns are not a bad way of finding out whether a potential president has the organizational skills to do the job.
Political skills. The president does not rule by fiat, but largely by persuasion. Furthermore, his direct authority is limited to the executive branch of government. Congress and the judiciary rightly view themselves as being co-equal branches with their own institutional perspectives and responsibilities even if they happen to belong to the president’s party. Political skills are therefore essential to the implementation of any president’s agenda. That has never been truer than now when Senate filibusters have become routine and party leaders no longer exercise the disciple they could once wield. A president with the right ideas but inadequate political skills is obviously not likely to be successful. Again, the presidential campaign allows voters to determine which candidates have them and which don’t.
Fundraising. For the most part, modern elections are won through mass media. Even in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, few voters will have much opportunity to observe candidates in close proximity. Most votes will be determined through advertising, mass mail, telephone banks and so on. But all of that costs money and while it’s easier now to raise funds through the Internet, a certain amount of buttonholing is still necessary for a candidate to raise the money needed to compete. Since people need a better reason to write a check than cast a vote, campaign contributors stand in for average voters in subjecting candidate to deeper scrutiny. If candidates didn’t have to raise campaign funds, we would know less about them and fewer outsiders would have access to them.
In short, the presidential selection process, for all its faults, does a pretty good job of forcing a candidate to demonstrate exactly the skills we want a president to have. And the length of the process, which is probably the thing that people hate most, is also a virtue. It prevents candidates with momentary popularity from having outsized influence. It also means that no candidate will survive without having every aspect of their career and personal life subjected to the sort of intense inspection that all potential presidents deserve.
This is not to say that the presidential election process can’t be improved. Of course it can. But it’s not as bad as the conventional wisdom sometimes suggests. We could do a lot worse, as other countries routinely demonstrate. Perhaps the best evidence that our system works pretty well is that in the vast majority of our elections the losing candidate would probably have done as good or better job as president as the winner. That’s because the system works.