To fix the primaries, bring back peer review
By ELAINE C. KAMARCK | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 28, 2020
In the four years after the 1968 Democratic convention, the nominating power in both parties shifted from elected officials and party leaders to primary voters. For many years the effect of this change was limited, as each party continued to nominate candidates who would have been plausible under the old convention system.
But the Republican nomination of Donald Trump in 2016 illustrated a hidden weakness in the new system — the absence of peer review. It is practically impossible to imagine Trump being nominated in a system where responsible political actors had a hand in deciding who was capable of the job.
It’s easy to see how our nomination system suffers from the lack of this key component, but much harder to figure out how to slip it back in. A system that includes peer review should be able to “assess the qualities of candidates for public office according to such dimensions as intelligence, sobriety of judgment, intellectual flexibility, ability to work well with others, willingness to learn from experience [and] detailed personal knowledge of government,” as the late political scientist Nelson Polsby wrote in 1983. Voters in early states may see candidates up close, but they can’t very well assess a potential president’s capacity to govern — something that is especially important in a system where the president shares power.
It would be neither possible nor wise to try to roll back the system of binding primaries that allows millions of partisans to choose their party’s standard-bearer — citizens are accustomed to voting in primaries, and any attempt to exclude them would be widely viewed as illegitimate — but it would be prudent to reintroduce an element of peer review. One option would be to allow superdelegates to vote on the first ballot in the Democratic system and to introduce superdelegates into the Republican primaries, as well. This would give governors and members of Congress votes independent of the primary voters. Of course, these people are themselves elected and have historically been reluctant to go against the will of their voters.
A second, more novel option would be to require each group of superdelegates — House members, senators, governors and national committee members — to cast ballots before the first primaries and caucuses. These groups could meet to evaluate the presidential candidates as they declare. But rather than casting ballots in favor of one candidate or another — a system that would tip heavily in favor of the “establishment” candidate — they could make a simple vote of confidence or no confidence. The criterion: Is this person someone who, by virtue of experience and temperament, can operate successfully in a democratic form of government?
A potential president could get an overall “vote of confidence” by crossing a modest threshold of superdelegates — say, 15% or 25%. This would be small enough to allow for minority ideologies to get a candidate into the ring, but large enough to rule out people with no track record of working within a democratic system.
The consequences of a no-confidence vote could be structured in a variety of ways. There could be no consequences at all, absent the bad publicity of failing this first test. Or, those who failed the vote of confidence could be kept off the debate stage or even primary ballots, although voters could still write them in and would still have the final say on the nomination.
Were such a system in place in 2016, Republicans might still have nominated Trump. And in 2019, given his long service in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders surely would have passed this first, modest test. Nonetheless, a system like this would have advantages.
If candidates had to discuss their positions with other lawmakers, the process could help keep unrealistic policy formulations from becoming rallying cries, such as Trump’s contention that Mexico would pay for a wall on the border. It would subject potential presidents to the real demands of the presidency, rather than the fluff that often passes in their stead. (Trump’s lack of knowledge as to the nuclear triad, for instance, could have been sussed out long before the debates.) And it would require other public servants to evaluate the subjective issue of temperament: Is this person capable of operating in a system of shared power?
The current nomination system makes both parties vulnerable to the easy lies of popular characters who are not equipped for the presidency, or who pose a threat to democracy by virtue of their authoritarian temperaments. The parties need to step up.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.” This is the fourth op-ed in a series about how to improve the presidential nominating process.