The Reform That Poisoned Politics

REG MURPHY

December 03, 1991|By REG MURPHY

Democrats and Republicans are poised again to pick as their leaders people who are nowhere near the first choice of the voters.

On that fateful November night next autumn when the returns are nearing completion, many will not even have gone to the polls. Many of those who did vote will be saying, ''I didn't really want to vote for either one of them.''

hTC And the reason will be a 20-year-old reform movement that went bad. Really bad.

Here's how to think of the current system. Each party holds a spring primary in each state. They divide up the nominating convention votes for the candidates in proportion to their popular votes in the primaries. Many independents don't vote in either political party's primary.

Now think of each vote as a raindrop falling on a hill. Some fall to the valley on the left and form a torrent. Some fall to the valley on the right and make a raging stream. Those that fall on the ridge either soak into the ground or flow to one extreme or the other.

There is no way for a mainstream to the develop in the middle. The votes slide to the outer boundaries. And so the moderates among us wind up on election day having to choose between two candidates picked by the left and the right in American politics.

That's why President Bush feels he has no maneuvering room on abortion, even though a majority of Americans clearly favors freedom of choice. If he were to side with the pro-choice voters, he would run the risk of losing some primaries to an extremist arguing to reverse the current law.

And that's why the Democrats produce candidates like Michael Dukakis, who spent like a Massachusetts liberal until his state went broke. He could not have won the nomination with a mainstream campaign.

That's why the National Rifle Association and some others are able to maintain enough impact to allow the sale of murderous semi-automatic guns. There is no mystery to it; the primaries keep the mainstream arguments against assault weapons from prevailing.

That's why the Democrats cannot prevail on their more moderate Senators -- Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn, for example -- to enter the primaries. They would have to compete for votes and money that naturally flow outside the mainstream.

These primary rules initially were called the McGovern reforms. They were intended to take the nominating process out of the hands of the old pols in the smoke-filled rooms and give power to individual voters.

Sounds good, doesn't it? After all, who wants the guys in office to look around and choose the candidates they know best?

The old system produced Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. And the reforms? Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis, Gerald Ford (sort of) and Ronald Reagan.

See what a difference reforms can make? Don't you just love it when the reformers take the power away from the old pols and give it to the extremes in the political primaries?

So what's to be done about it? Well, nothing in 1992, because it already is too late. The Democrats who would make the strongest candidates have concluded they cannot raise enough money to make a strong race, even if they could attract mainstream voters. The Republicans talk about Patrick Buchanan and David Duke running against President Bush to force him further right than his natural instincts would take him. We're stuck with the system for now. But we shouldn't be stuck with it in the future.

Instead of making outright money grants to serious candidates, buy television time for them -- time for discussion, not time for 30-second spots. Maybe even buy them some space in magazines and newspapers, where they could put their thoughts on paper to allow serious voters to analyze them.

Instead of producing what's-my-line ''debates,'' let some responsible organization like the League of Women Voters submit serious questions on a whole range of issues, and then use the Government Printing Office to distribute the answers.

Instead of requiring independent voters to choose one or the other political party in order to vote, amend the laws to allow them to pick and choose among candidates from both parties for national, state and local offices.

Instead of trying to be populists who insist that none of the old pols cares about the system, let them become more involved with more votes prior to the national conventions. By convention time, it is too late for them to have any real influence. We need their judgments earlier in the process.

As with most reform movements, this one started with high aims. Perhaps it was impossible to foresee that single-issue politics would result from a combination of early primaries, proportional convention votes, elimination of influence from elected officials and increasing expertise in the use of television.

But many of us are tired of getting to election day and saying, ''There's just nobody I want to vote for.'' That is what needs to be reformed.

Reg Murphy is the former publisher and chairman of The Baltimore Sun.

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