With the 2016 presidential “debates” now behind us, it becomes more and more apparent that it’s time for Republicans to reevaluate their process for selecting presidential candidates. While the recent Trump snafu… in which he is caught on tape suggesting that if you’re rich and famous you can get away with grabbing unsuspecting women by their genitals… may not turn off his most ardent supporters and defenders, it will most certainly hamper his ability to attract the women, the independents, and the undecided voters he’ll need on November 8. However, we should not be surprised to learn that a man who has enjoyed great power and wealth might also exhibit a tendency to ignore the rules of decorum that he would expect others to live by.
Donald Trump has shown himself to be an egomaniac of the first order… a crude, vulgar and inarticulate man with few of the social skills necessary for success in the political arena. In his primary debates with sixteen other Republicans he looked and acted like a grownup schoolyard bully. And while he’s touched a number of “hot button” issues that greatly concern most Americans… Islamic terrorism, international trade, illegal immigration, and the exportation of jobs… he’s wasted weeks and months on the campaign trail fighting unnecessary and unwinnable battles.
That being said, how could such a boorish individual, running for his first attempt at public office, win the Republican nomination for president of the United States, even though, by comparison, he is far preferable to his Democratic opponent? The answer to that question lies in the relative merits of the primary system versus the caucus/convention system in which party loyalists and activists select the party’s presidential nominees.
The 1964 Goldwater campaign was a grassroots campaign organized at the local level across the country. It was a campaign specifically designed to generate the long-sought confrontation between the most articulate proponents of conservatism and liberalism… a confrontation that would never occur if the eastern liberal establishment had been allowed to nominate yet another moderate Republican. In 1968, the party nominated former vice president Richard Nixon, who had spent the previous eight years traveling the country, raising money for state and local candidates and endearing himself to the Republican rank-and-file. And although he was not as beloved by conservatives as was Barry Goldwater, his level of support at the grassroots level was sufficient to nominate him in 1968 without serious opposition.
In the years between 1968 and 1980, yet another conservative grassroots movement was taking root in support of Governor Ronald Reagan, of California. However, the success of the Reagan movement once again energized opposition among establishment Republicans. And while Reagan enjoyed broad support in precinct caucuses and in county and state GOP conventions all across the country, establishment Republicans made a last ditch effort to regain party control by forcing him to accept a moderate Republican, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate.
Bush was nominated and elected in 1988 but, as conservatives had predicted, he was destined to be a one-term president. When asked in 1992 whether or not she had been disappointed in Bush’s performance during his first term, former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick said, “Disappointed? No. In order for one to be disappointed, one must have had some expectation in the first place.” With his defeat, the Clinton political dynasty was launched.
In 1996, establishment Republicans nominated Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) who had little or no chance of defeating Bill Clinton. In 2000, establishment Republicans nominated and elected yet another moderate, George W. Bush who, while campaigning in South Carolina, demonstrated his ignorance of conservative ideology by describing himself as a “compassionate” conservative… apparently unaware that conservatism has always been the soul of true compassion. In 2008, establishment Republicans nominated a moderate, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and in 2012 they nominated yet another moderate, Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).
What each of the post-1984 nominees had in common is that none were the product of a broad-based conservative grassroots movements; all were products of primary elections in which the winning candidate was determined, not on the basis of fidelity to basic conservative principles, but largely on the basis of who could spend the most on slick 30-second TV commercials.
Nowhere has Trump’s ignorance of the political process been more evident than in his response to Sen. Ted Cruz’s success in winning all 34 of Colorado’s convention delegate votes. Upon learning that Cruz had captured all of Colorado’s delegate slots, Trump is quoted as saying, “I’ve gotten millions of more votes than Cruz, and I’ve gotten hundreds of delegates more… and then you have a Colorado where they just get all these delegates, and it’s not a system. There was no voting. I didn’t go out there to make a speech or anything.” He went on to say, “But the system is rigged. It’s crooked.” He later tweeted, “How is it possible that the people of Colorado never got to vote in the Republican primary?”
The people of Colorado would be surprised and angered to learn that Trump considers the system they’ve devised to elect national convention delegates to be “rigged” or “crooked.”
What Trump apparently fails to understand is that, while he was having his way with politicians around the globe, buying with cash whatever governmental decisions he couldn’t win by simple persuasion, millions of other Americans were doing whatever they could to further the interests of their country, their community, and their party. Many concerned citizens were serving their party as precinct chairmen, as county chairmen, and as state committeemen. Millions of others spent their evenings stuffing envelopes, manning telephones, putting up yard signs, and distributing campaign literature door-to-door. Others spent much of their spare time recruiting good people to run for public office, participating in precinct meetings and caucuses, or serving as delegates to county, state, and national conventions… all at their own expense.
Under the caucus/convention presidential nominating system, those who are the “spear-carriers” of the nominating process are the party activists who, because of their intimate relationship with party affairs, are most capable of identifying and nominating the candidates who best represent the party platform and who have the best chance of success on Election Day.
Conversely, while it is still the party activists who are called upon to do all the hard work of political fundraising, organizing, and campaigning, the primary election system puts the final selection of presidential candidates in the hands of voters, many of whom pay little or no attention to public affairs on a day-to-day basis, and who think they’ve done their “civic duty” merely by going to the polls on Election Day. In most cases, their voting booth decisions are based on published polling data… the “herd” instinct… or on impressions gained from viewing innumerable 30-second TV sound bytes over many months of the campaign season.
There is no better example of the quality of candidates produced by the primary system than Donald Trump. In the final weeks of the campaign, with the country teetering on the brink of political and economic disaster, we find our last best hope for survival and renewal… beset by numerous charges of sexual improprieties and warring against the top leaders of his own party… putting his own ego and his own self-image above the best interests of the party and the country.
After eight years of Barack Obama’s bogus presidency, we find every economic indicator and every foreign policy initiative headed in the wrong direction. As such, almost any Republican candidate could have “waltzed” into the White House, especially when opposed by Hillary Rodham Clinton who, along with Barack Obama, is one of the most corrupt public figures in US history. But the blame for Trump’s poor showing in the polls is not entirely his. He may be the most inept and inarticulate presidential candidate in party history, but his candidacy is the product of: a) the primary system, and b) the failure of the Republican Party to demand that Republican elected officials adhere to state and national party platforms.
Those of us who’ve been party activists for many years have learned the true value of the caucus/convention system in which the planks of party platforms are generated at the precinct level, from where they eventually find their way into staunchly conservative state and national party platforms… platforms which are, in turn, almost totally ignored by Republican elected officials after they’ve been elected and sworn into office.
It was just sixteen years between the Goldwater nomination in 1964 and the Reagan nomination in 1980, and it is now thirty-six years since the party nominated its last true conservative. Had the Republican Party been unswervingly faithful to its underlying principles in the post-WWII era, the United States of America would be a totally different place today, and Donald Trump would appear to be a moderate-liberal by comparison. It is the Republican Party’s long-term failure to honor its own principles that has created a political environment in which voters would reject qualified and experienced candidates in favor of an untried and unproven outsider. That is the lesson of the Trump candidacy.
Donald Trump is now our last, best hope. And if he will continue to deliver the excellent stump speech he gave in Delaware, Ohio, on Thursday, October 20, and in Fletcher, North Carolina, the following day, he can still be elected on November 8. Unfortunately, if his totally inappropriate remarks at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York on Thursday evening are any indicator, he could just as easily waste the remaining campaign days “tilting at windmills” and fighting unnecessary and unwinnable battles. If he is elected he will be our next president and the republic will be set on the road to renewal. If she is elected she may be our last president and only God knows what terrible fate awaits us.
Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College. He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.