Should We Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Rooms?

The National Interest’s Robert Merry isn’t happy with the current presidential nomination process. It’s too long, too costly, and places too much faith in the ability of ordinary voters to control the process. Other than luck, he argues, there’s nothing to keep an unqualified or vulnerable candidate from winning the nomination. It almost happened with the Democratic Party in 2008 (see: John Edwards), and it could happen with this year’s Republican nomination contest. Moreover, the vetting that does exist isn’t foolproof; if a single candidate wins the early primaries, is there any doubt that the game would be over in short order?

For an alternative to the current system, Merry offers a return to the “smoke-filled rooms” of yore:

It worked like this: The party pros in what were colloquially called “smoke-filled rooms” (party caucuses and conventions) would make the decisions based on conviction, political log rolling, compromise, friendship patterns and, shall we say, party protection. But in order to know what kind of vote-getting potential the various contenders had, it was necessary to engineer a small number of primaries in certain traditionally primary states. Then the final decisions could be informed decisions. […]

[C]onsider the dangers inherent in our system now, when candidates emerge based on their own judgment of their overwhelming talents and virtues, rather than those of their political peers, and when the vetting process has been truncated to a point where it relies on happenstance to save the system from people nobody really knows and who may be hiding serious flaws that add up to political liabilities.

Merry is right, there is a lot to like about the former system. A closed door nomination process allowed a level of discussion and frankness that you can’t get when the process is conducted in public. Party elites could hash out important issues, account for vulnerabilities, and make the necessary deals without the constant pressure of staying “on message.” What’s more, it’s not clear that this system is any less democratic than the one that exists now; given the extent to which the parties are porous and malleable, activists would still have their fair say. Ordinary voters would too, but at the end of the process.

Of course, there are a few big problems with relying on insiders for these decisions — unless the party itself is diverse, women and minorities will have a harder time entering the fray as candidates. But that’s already the case, and it’s unclear as to how much a popular primary changes would actually improve their odds. If the current political environment is any indication, a “smoked-filled room” won’t harm the chances for women and minority candidates, and could even improve them. Either way, it’s not clear that the current system produces better nominees than the former one, and even if it did, it’s an open question as to whether higher candidate quality outweighs the greater risk of a disaster.

Regardless of what you think about the current system for organizing presidential primaries, it’s worth thinking about its pitfalls, and the ways in which it could be better. The simple fact is that choosing a party nominee isn’t the same thing as choosing a president, and our reliance on democracy at all levels of the process isn’t necessarily a good thing.