One of the curious contradictions of our era is that, while we constantly hear how “the media” want to keep the political campaign going because it makes an “interesting” story, the fact is that it was in large part the way the media covers primary campaigns that brought about the present situation in which the nomination is normally decided well in advance of the convention in the first place.
Those of us above a certain age can well recall when conventions still really nominated candidates, and when it was by no means certain going into a convention who would emerge as the nominee. The spread of primaries and the decline of party establishments (“bosses”) has transformed the nominating process, but so has the media coverage which (1) focuses almost entirely on the competition itself (the “horserace”) and prematurely anoints frontrunners, thus causing opponents to drop out too early in the race, and (2) increases the cost of campaigning, which in turn makes it hard for non-frontrunners without media-recognized “momentum” to remain long in the race.
When contested conventions were the norm, they were not seen as such a liability. Now that they are the exception, they have come to be seen as a serious liability for a political party trying to get itself in competitive shape for the general election. Certainly, the last seriously contested conventions – the Democrats in 1968 and 1972, the Republicans in 1976 – contributed to the party’s defeat. By extension, continuing the fight all the way to the convention (even if the outcome is by then assured) is seen as destructive to the party. The Kennedy challenge to Carter in 1980 is the obvious example. Of course, any incumbent who is seriously challenged within his own party is inevitably weakened – as was the case with Carter in 1980, Ford in 1976, and (analogously) Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
The 2008 race between Obama and Clinton is often seen as the exception. Going in, Obama was presumptively the weaker candidate (even if he was the media’s darling), and there is little doubt that the competition with a presumptively superior candidate made him a better competitor for the General Election. The Republican 2012 experience, however, has illustrated what an exception the 2008 Democratic race was.
But all of this largely misses the point. The reason the long primary campaign ended up helping the Democrats in 2008 was that the Democrats were ready to go – ready to offer a serious alternative to Republican incompetence and thus resume their 20th-century status as the national governing party. (That Obama himself was evidently not personally ready to govern may have since become all too evident. But that is a different issue).
Compare the Republicans today with the Democrats in 2008. None of the candidates is really ready to govern. And it shows! Nor is the problem purely the personalities of the candidates (however lamentable some of them may have been). The reality is that it has been quite some time now since the Republican Party has really had something positive to offer the American electorate. If indeed, as polls have consistently suggested, Americans are distressed about the country’s direction – angry about its present and fearful for its future – what better time to offer a viable alternative? The alternative to Obama’s somewhat weak foreign policy should be a strong one in which the national interests of the United States are clearly comprehended and pursued. The noisy saber-rattling of Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich is not the same as a strong foreign policy, much less a substitute for it. (As for the fourth Republican candidate, the less said about his libertarian isolationism the better!) Likewise, empty slogans about job-creation by candidates who have become hostage to an ideology which will accomplish no such thing are no help either.
Not necessarily in order of importance and not to exclude other important issues, I can quickly list a number of critical issues threatening or undermining our national path to prosperity and security. They include:
1. Iran and North Korea (and specifically the prospect of either or both of them acquiring nuclear weapons)
2. Our excessive dependence on imported energy (and our excessive dependence on energy, period)
3. Our out-of-control expenditures on entitlement programs and the out-of-control cost of health care
4. Our deteriorating educational system that is forming a population ill-equipped to compete with other societies which truly value education
5. Our dysfunctional transportation system
6. The catastrophic breakdown of consensus on cultural and moral issues and the personal and social consequences thereof
7. Our loss of confidence as a society in the political process as a means to move forward on these and other problems.
I’ll stop at seven.
Does anyone hear serious solutions to these problems being proposed – or even just the problems being discussed in an intelligent, rational, and honest way?