WASHINGTON — Because of the grotesquely swollen place the presidency now occupies in the nation's governance and consciousness, we are never not preoccupied with presidential campaigning. The Constitution's Framers would be appalled.
The nation reveres the Framers, but long ago abandoned the presidential selection process they considered so important that they made it one of the four national institutions created by the Constitution. Hence the significance of the Republican National Committee's suggested reforms for the 2016 process.
University of Virginia professor James Ceaser says the four national institutions the Framers created were Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency and the presidential selection system based on the Electoral College. The fourth, wherein the selection of candidates and election of a president by each state's electors occurred simultaneously — they were the same deliberation — soon disappeared.
Since the emergence of the party system in the 1790s, and the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804, candidates have been selected by several different processes. First by their party's congressional caucuses; then by nominating conventions controlled by the party's organizations; then by conventions influenced by primaries and caucuses (Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination without entering any primaries); and, since 1972, entirely by primaries and caucuses that have made conventions nullities.
Now, responding to the fact that the 2012 nomination process was ruinously protracted, the RNC suggests reforms that might, like many improvements, make matters worse. This is because of a prior “improvement” — campaign finance reform.
The RNC suggests a shorter nominating season with fewer debates — none earlier than Sept. 1, 2015. The 20 debates in 2012 were actually one fewer than in 2008. But in 2000 there were 13. In 1988, seven. In 1980, just six. The May 5, 2011, debate was eight months before the Iowa caucuses. In 1980, the first was 16 days before Iowa voted.
The RNC report does not challenge the role of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in beginning the delegate selection. Perhaps it is not worth the trouble to challenge these states' anachronistic entitlement; like all entitlements, it is fiercely defended by the beneficiaries. But a reform process that begins by accepting this crucial component of the status quo substantially limits possibilities. By the time these four states have had their say, the field of candidates often has been considerably — and excessively — winnowed, and the outcome is, if not settled, given a trajectory that is difficult to alter.