Something very strange is going on. Or, put another way with more emphasis, what the hell is going on? Or, as we used to say back in I think it was the 1960s or early ’70s, “Who the hell for President.” Simply stated, the American electorate over the past decade and maybe more has been choosing, or perhaps being offered, the most surprising, least expected, and sometimes least qualified candidates for the highest office in the land.
The Presidency is the most prominent and most powerful popularly elected position in the country. It ranks above Speaker of the House, who is only elected by members of Congress; above Majority Leader in the Senate, who is only elected by members of the majority party in Congress; and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is appointed by the President and confirmed in the Senate. Of all the key players in our national government, the President is the only one we all get together and choose, first in the primary elections or party caucuses in each state and then in the national election.
Yes, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have great influence on how the candidates of each major party are chosen. The national committees solicit and direct funding for campaigns and write the rules for party organization and choosing delegates to their national conventions, where input from the primaries are reduced to votes for and against potential candidates. And sometimes the national committees, whose members and influence may not be publicly recognized—that “smoke-filled room” thing—put their fingers on the scale. In both parties, the votes at their national convention include both “pledged” delegates, representing results of the primary election in their state, “unpledged” delegates, who presumably can vote their conscience, or the desires of the party structure, or whatever.
Up until 2018, the Democrats had a large number of “superdelegates” in this position, representing members of Congress, governors, and past Presidents. They could vote however they themselves wanted or at the direction of the party. After 2018, the superdelegates were forbidden to vote on the first ballot of the convention, effectively letting the people decide that much, unless the outcome was beyond doubt. In 2015, the Republicans ruled that unpledged delegates had to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state’s primary election.
And then, there is the matter of whether the state holds an open, semi-open, or closed primary election, reflecting when and how people not registered with a particular party can vote for the candidates of other parties. Only thirteen states and the District of Columbia have closed primaries, where the voter is only offered the choice of candidates within his or her registered party affiliation. Fifteen states have semi-closed primaries, where only independent voters may choose among candidates on any of the affiliated ballots, or may change their registration on election day. Fourteen states have open primaries, where the voter chooses the party ballot on election day. Others, including my own California, have some kind of blanket primary, where the voters choose from a roster of all candidates from all parties.
So how much actual choice any individual voter has in the selection of the final candidates put forward on the November ballot is open to question.
Still … what the hell has been happening? Sometimes, the party’s candidate has been around so long, raised so much money, or tried often enough that the national committee, the primary voters, and the delegates decide that, come what may, “it’s his [or her] time.” This is apparently what happened when the Republicans selected the cold-natured Bob Dole to run in 1996 and Democrats promoted the unlovable and sometimes questionable Hillary Clinton in 2016. In both cases, party loyalists had to grit their teeth and vote the platform. At least, both candidates had solid careers in the Senate, and Clinton had been Secretary of State, a high and influential office in any administration.
But in 2008, the Democrats nominated Barack Obama, a junior senator with limited government experience, with sealed transcripts and a ghost-written autobiography—but selected presumably because he was the only obvious Black candidate, and “it was time”—and the Republicans nominated John McCain, an established senator from Arizona but one who had voted against his party’s interest so often that he felt like an independent.
In 2012, the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, a businessman, son of the former governor of Michigan, and chief executive of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was a nice enough guy, but still not ready for the presidency.1
In 2016, the Democrats finally decided it was Hillary Clinton’s “time,” narrowly excluding the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, whose party affiliation is officially “independent” and unabashedly claims to admire socialism. And the Republicans passed over a dozen able candidates with political experience including governors and senators as well as a nationally prominent businesswoman with executive experience to choose Donald Trump, a real estate magnate and reality-television star with no background in electoral politics.
And then in 2020, we almost got Sanders as the Democratic nominee but he was passed over at the eleventh hour by Joe Biden, a long-time senator, vice president under Obama, previous candidate for president—but also a man of obviously frail and perhaps failing mental and physical health. If it was “his time,” that was sometime in the past. Biden was joined on the Democratic ticket by Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California and former state attorney general, who dropped out of the field of presidential candidates before her first primary. These are hardly charismatic personalities.
It used to be that candidates for the highest office in the land would have extensive political experience, usually as a governor running one of the larger states or as an influential and long-serving member of Congress, at least as a senator. But lately we have seen a parade of candidates chosen for some other reason. And not all of them have outstanding service in some other line of work, such as Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election after a leadership role in winning World War II.
It is almost as if the parties, or the people themselves, are devaluing the office, saying “Who the hell for President.” And this is at a time when Congress defers more and more of the details in the laws they pass to the judgment of unelected bureaucrats in the Executive branch and lets the legality of those laws be decided in cases before the Supreme Court. You would think that the person who appoints the senior executives in the administration, sets its day-to-day tone, can veto legislation, and nominates the federal judges and Supreme Court justices should be a person of proven capability, probity, and reasonable judgment.
Instead, we seem to get more than our fair share of nonentities and, sometimes, thinly disguised crooks and buffoons. Who chooses these people? What the hell is happening?
1. And it was only in the last year or so that he became the junior senator from Utah, gaining the political experience that he should have had eight years ago.