Let the Office Seek the Candidate

July 26, 1991

It used to be said that the presidency ought to seek the candidate rather than the other way around. Yet in recent years, individuals thought of as presidential only by their mothers have decided they ought to be in the White House and have devoted all their time (and some of your money) in pursuit of the prize. Some even got nominated, thanks to a primary system that rewards early-entering long shots. It could happen again.

What national Democratic leaders urged Paul Tsongas, the former (one-term) Massachusetts senator, to run for president? Who said to Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin, "lead us back into the White House"? Are there really influential Democrats telling Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas or Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia they must renege on pledges not to run for president in 1992 because the party needs them? Is there any party official who has advised Jesse Jackson, who has twice run in the primaries and lost badly, that this is his year?

The politics of presidential nomination has become a self-serving process. All of these men are being reported by the media as would-be presidential candidates because they have invited such coverage. It has been a long time since party leaders did, in fact, pressure reluctant but qualified candidates to seek the presidency. It has been a long time since a candidate entered the nominating contest with a national constituency already behind him. You have to go back to the 1950s to find pure examples of what we are talking about: Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

In 1952, when only undistinguished Democrats indicated an interest in the presidential nomination, party leaders, including outgoing President Harry Truman, "drafted" Illinois Governor Stevenson for the nomination. In 1992, given the undistinguished Democrats lining up for the contest, perhaps the time is ripe for another draft.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell says he will not run. Why doesn't he say who should and start working? Why don't Speaker Tom Foley, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, Sen. Sam Nunn? Why don't Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy? Why don't Gov. Mario Cuomo and %% Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, if they aren't going to run themselves? Why don't Democratic senators who must run for re-election next year, especially the freshmen, like Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski? They have a lot riding on the name at the top of the ticket.

Presidential politics could never go back to domination by party "bosses." Nor should it. But as we survey the field of self-selected Democrats on the scene, and review the recent record, we feel a certain nostalgia for the smoke-filled room.


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