The presidential nomination mess

I didn’t get around to reading Professor James Ceaser’s essay on the presidential nomination mess in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books until I was on vacation earlier this month. It’s a long essay that covers a lot of ground. I was particularly interested in Professor Ceaser’s discussion of the electoral college:

The Constitution, contrary to popular impression, created not three but four national institutions: the presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential selection system (centered on the Electoral College). The question of presidential selection was just that important to the founders, and they created a system that was meant to institutionalize the process from start to finish–from the gathering and winnowing phase up through the final election. The Constitution, in other words, was intended to control “nominating” as well as electing: the electors, meeting in their respective states, would vote for two people for president (at least one of whom had to come from another state), thus nominating and electing at the same time. When the votes were collected and opened on the floor of the House of Representatives, the winner (if he had a majority) would become president, and the runner–up would become vice president.

The nominating plan, as matters turned out, worked as intended only when there was no real need for it. The electors twice nominated the one individual in American history, George Washington, whose choice was never in doubt. By the time Washington stepped down, national political parties, which the founders never expected, had begun to impose their influence on the electors’ nominating function, promoting the parties’ own candidates for president and vice president and effectively removing this process from constitutional jurisdiction.

Professor Ceaser’s description of the founders’ intentions has a timely application to this year’s election:

The principal objective was to choose a sound statesman, someone “pre-eminent for ability and virtue,” in the words of The Federalist, by a method that satisfied republican standards of legitimacy. (The system, with electors to be chosen by the state legislatures or the public, was a remarkably democratic arrangement for its day.) How to identify a person of “virtue” was the crux of the issue. The best way would be a judgment based largely on the individual’s record of public service, as determined finally by the electors. The founders’ intent was above all to prevent having the decision turn on a demonstration of skill in the “popular arts” as displayed in a campaign. They were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction; this would open the door to demagoguery, which, as the ancients had shown, was the greatest threat to the maintenance of moderate popular government. By demagoguery, the founders did not mean merely the fomenting of class envy, or harsh, angry appeals to regressive forces; they also had in mind the softer, more artful designs of a Pericles or a Caesar, who appealed to hopeful expectations, “those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle” (Federalist 68). The greatest demagogues would be those who escaped the label altogether.

The whole thought-provoking essay is worth reading and may provide a bit more for you to worry about if you respect the wisdom of the founders and don’t have enough to worry about already.

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