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Bring Back the Political “Smoke-Filled Rooms”

As anyone who is conscious knows by now, the Joe Biden re-election campaign is in serious trouble. The president clearly showed signs of serious mental deterioration in his recent debate with Donald Trump and Biden’s performance was bad enough for even the New York Times (which had claimed up to the debate that Biden’s cognitive skills were fine, and anything said to the contrary was a lie) to call for him to drop out of the race.

Biden, not surprisingly, has been defiant in the face of Democrats calling for him to step down, but that has not stopped the calls for a change and are looking to the party leaders to do something. Indeed, a number of prominent Democrats have called for everything from an “open convention” to a “mini-primary” in which the voters would help choose the Democrats’ new nominee, should Biden remove himself.

The problem for Democrats, of course, is that Donald Trump is the Republican challenger, and it is becoming increasingly unlikely that a cognitively challenged Biden could defeat Trump in an open (and fair) election. Furthermore, most delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention are pledged to Biden and the only way the Democrats can make a change, should Biden remain stubbornly as the candidate, is to get the pledged delegates to agree to changing party rules.

In short, there is no good way the Democrats can deal with this problem short of undermining their own candidates and their convention. Yet less than a century ago, the Democrats would have been able to legally remove a candidate in crisis like Biden and replace him with someone who would give the party a fighting chance in the presidential election. Not surprisingly, we are seeing yet another example of how Progressive Era “reforms” have blown up things and made them worse.

American progressives have left a trail of ruin from Jim Crow laws to the administrative state in their endless campaigns for “reform,” and the way Americans now choose the presidential candidates is part of the wreckage of progressivism. Until the early 1900s, the national parties chose their candidates at the conventions. (For example, Franklin Roosevelt received the official Democratic nomination for president in 1932 on the fourth ballot.)

Beginning with Florida in 1901, states began to substitute primaries as the way to choose delegates for presidents and other elected officials and by 1972, the entire system was dominated by primaries, as practically every state held one, with the early ones having outsized influence. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower won the New Hampshire primary, defeating Robert Taft and changing the direction of the Republican Party forever, In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his re-election campaign after a poor showing in New Hampshire. Likewise, Jimmy Carter received a huge boost in his long-shot campaign in 1976 when he was the surprise winner of the Iowa Caucuses and then later won the New Hampshire primary.

One of the legacies of the primary system has been what seems to be the eternal presidential campaigns. Long before the election years, would-be presidential candidates are shaking hands and meeting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and raising money, lots of money. While the so-called post-Watergate reforms of the mid-1970s ostensibly sought to lessen the influence of campaign cash, they had the opposite effects, as campaign spending has exploded.

For all the complaints that conventions were chosen by “party bosses” in “smoke-filled rooms,” the conventions kept the extremists from being nominated. An extreme leftist candidate like Bernie Sanders, for example, would never have received enough convention votes for nomination, but he narrowly lost in the primary systems in 2016 and 2020. In fact, Sanders seemed to be sailing toward victory when Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina was able to rally enough black Democrats to enable Biden to win the South Carolina primary and give his candidacy some momentum.

For that matter, Donald Trump is the creation of a primary system, as no convention led by party bosses would have nominated him, and it is highly unlikely that he would have been renominated after his 2020 electoral loss. While one can counter that argument by saying that the convention system would yield “establishment” candidates, it also is true that no “establishment” president over time ever accumulated the staggering amounts of national debt and deficit spending that we see with our present system. Since 1972, when the primary system became the way of choosing presidential candidates, the national debt has grown substantially both in nominal terms and as a percent of GDP.

If the Republicans and Democrats were still choosing their candidates via the convention system, there would be no “crisis” with Joe Biden’s obvious dementia. The delegates would be choosing a new candidate without the angst and uncertainty that we currently see. Neither would we be seeing the huge, year-long parade of mediocrities passing as presidential candidates for both parties.

Instead, we have intractable problems caused by an intractable system. Bring back the conventions. Since people are no longer smoking, then bring back the smokeless rooms.

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William L. Anderson
William L. Anderson is a Fellow of the Mises Institute and professor of economics at Frostburg State University. He earned his MA in economics from Clemson University and his PhD in economics from Auburn University, where he was a Mises Research Fellow.
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