Having concluded that the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are not quite ludicrous enough, in last Saturday's Iowa straw poll the Republican Party decided to go with a circus instead. Whatever its shortcomings as a component of the nominating process, this policy seems admirably frank.
Still, one couldn't blame Lamar Alexander for feeling unhappy. The former Tennessee Governor finished the straw poll with both legs amputated, but even earlier he was complaining about the coronation of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. After all, Bush's most striking qualification for the presidency is his lack of any striking qualifications for the presidency. By contrast, Alexander is, in many respects, the most well-rounded candidate in the field. Sorry: was.
Dan Quayle is similarly unhappy. The former Vice President is the most attractive conservative in the race, and the only one who projects a sense of optimism or inclusiveness. The three conservatives who beat him in Iowa all project the upbeat amiability of Jeremiah with acid reflux. Quayle thinks he deserves a chance to represent the conservative vision to the electorate. Alas for him, the cheerful conservatives who might have voted for him mostly fled to Bush.
Pure-minded campaign reform types, who wouldn't know what to do all day if not to decry things, lately have been decrying Bush's selection by what they call a "wealth primary." If some hardly known Governor can develop this sort of lead a year before the election by raising fantastic sums of money, what about participatory politics? Bush is not a candidate, these critics say; he is a bank account.
The truth is that Alexander and Quayle and the campaign reformers all have a point. Bush's coronation looks bizarre. It looks peremptory and unfair. And, in fact, it is, in some respects, bizarre, peremptory, and unfair. But it isn't bad. It is good. It has the potential to be the healthiest development in presidential politics in a long time.
After living and working in Britain for a couple of spells, I came away convinced of the superiority, in some essential respects, of a parliamentary system. The campaign season is mercifully short. But that is possible because the parties are strong. They choose their leaders and set about building positions. By the time the election comes, the opposition leader and party are nearly as familiar to the voters as are the ruling leader and party.
In a sense, the parliamentary model is less democratic than the American method because the party leader is chosen by the party rather than the people. No one consults the voters. In the long months before each election, however, the principle of voter selection exerts itself at a different and more important level: The voters are able to see the goods on offer, and not just in the shopwindow–in ads and orchestrated campaign appearances–but in action, as the leader molds the party.
Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the British prime minister, dragged their parties to the center and reconfigured their countries' politics. But Clinton did it two years after his election. In 1992 he pandered left, right, and center all at once; in 1993 and 1994 he governed from the left. In 1995, when he finally lurched to the center, he acted out of weakness, not strength–and the gleeful Republicans lurched to the right. The successive overshoots in opposite directions traumatized the parties, polarized Washington, and confirmed voters' exasperation with politicians who could not find the center if they tripped over it.
Blair, by contrast, put the horse before the cart. First he took over his party, then he took over the country. By the time he stood against John Major, Blair had spent two years demonstrating that he could dominate his party's left. Once elected, he neither wanted nor needed to reposition himself.
In practical effect, and apparently more out of a survivalist instinct than any rational design (but in politics rational design never works), Republicans are collectively choosing the Blair model over the Clinton one. That is, they are inventing a kind of on-the-fly version of parliamentary politics. Bush is being chosen by the party, not the voters, because the party wants to win. And he is being chosen early.
All of that will be frustrating for the other Republican candidates. Only Steve Forbes, who has the money and temperament to follow Bush around with a bag of rotten tomatoes, and Elizabeth Dole, who is making history by running, are likely to enjoy themselves. The party, however, will benefit.
The Republicans are now in the same sort of trouble as the Labor Party before Blair and as the Democrats before Clinton. They are struggling to reposition the party in the center at a time when its loyalists have drifted way over to the edge. Moreover, the leading Republican exponent of edge politics, Tom DeLay of Texas, is also arguably the country's most powerful Republican politician. DeLay, as House majority whip, holds a commanding institutional position. He also operates a formidable political machine. He is tougher and more ruthless than almost anybody else. As long as he stays where he is, the Republican Party will be pulled to the right.
If Bush were to run on the Clinton model, his candidacy would never find its focus, his presidency would be pushed around by DeLay and company, and then at last he would veer to the center. This would be entertaining, but it would not be good for the Republicans or for the country. A better plan is for the Republicans to define themselves before the election.
Bush's ascendancy may allow the party to establish a center of gravity that is not Tom DeLay. If Bush is made of stern stuff and stands for anything, he might use his pre-eminence–his de facto role as leader of the opposition–to reposition his party. He might make clear, as he has already hinted, that posting the Ten Commandments in public-school classrooms is not the Republicans' idea of America's most pressing need.
The party would benefit from a chance to gauge Bush's performance as leader. If he falls apart, there is still time to go with someone else. The political system, however, would benefit even more. The American primary system, as almost everyone has noticed by now, has drifted from mere peculiarity to outright absurdity. Two small and idiosyncratic states narrow the field, whereupon a Niagara of primaries in big states settles the issue before anyone really knows what happened. The party structure is marginalized, fringe activists are empowered, candidates are strained beyond human endurance, and voters are bewildered.
Until the primary system is changed, the best coping strategy is a work-around. That is, let the party, rather than the activists of Iowa and New Hampshire, choose first and then present that choice to the voters. If the voters endorse Bush, the primaries will have ratified the party's selection instead of the other way around. Party selection was not always rational or successful, but primary selection has become so misbegotten that, in effect, party selection has come back, this time before the primary elections rather than before the general election. An imperfect solution, but it might just work.
In no respect would the voters be disenfranchised. They will have ample opportunity to kick George W. around, make him beg and bark like a dog, or upend him altogether. In the Iowa straw poll, Bush prevailed, but he did not sweep the field. He is unlikely to emerge, next year, as the only Republican in the race, so there will be places for the party's protest vote to go. To the extent that Bush manages to dominate early and put his stamp on the party, however, protesters will have a clear idea of the sort of Republican Party they are protesting.
Bush is inexperienced, untested, vague. He suddenly emerged, full-feathered, from out of nowhere only five years ago. He has been promoted through the ranks of the Republican Party in much the same fashion as Saddam Hussein's nephews are promoted through the Iraqi military.
That, however, is not an argument against promoting Bush to the top of the party. It is an argument against promoting him straight to the White House. The British system implicitly understands that the only way to test a leader's mettle is to put him in charge. William Hague was a nonentity who attained the leadership of the Conservative Party by virtue of his fresh face and sharp elbows. Now the party and the country are trying him out. So now Hague is a proven nonentity.
With luck, the voters will get a long look at George W. Bush, and the Republican Party will get a brisk slap from him. Maybe–who knows?–the Republicans have found their Tony Blair. Maybe–what is more important–they will now have the chance to find out if they have found him.