The 2016 Presidential Campaign has gotten underway with Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio announcing their campaigns to win their respective party nomination. The Republican field looks to be the more interesting primary until there is an actual challenger to the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, which may never materialize. In addition to the announced Republican candidates, it is likely that at the very least Jeb Bush and Scott Walker will join the race sometime soon (Ohio governor John Kasich is also looking more likely).
As a moderate libertarian/neoclassical liberal, I’ve been looking forward to a Rand Paul campaign for some time. Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns were a much needed challenge to the stale rhetoric seen in campaigns for the past 20 years. Finally hearing a Republican who opposed continuous foreign wars and pulverizing civil liberties was refreshing. Of course, Ron Paul’s challenging of traditional Republican ideas did not mean he was a moderate. Uncompromising might be a good euphemism. Exceedingly reactionary might be more appropriate. His ideological purity on most issues meant his campaign could never move very far beyond its own base. Not that I minded! But it would be interesting to see what a more moderate candidate could do.
Rand Paul has tried to strike a course independent from his father. He has purposefully taken more politically palatable positions in order to woo both Democrats and Republicans to his side. While this may turn away parts of his father’s base of voters, the optimist might hope that Rand Paul can give libertarian-leaning voters an outlet. Certainly there has been some positive talk about his attempts to expand the Republican party, as well as some tacit acknowledgement that many Americans’ views don’t fit perfectly into the Right-Left spectrum. But just as common is the narrative that Rand Paul can’t satisfy both his base and the Republican establishment. The editor of the National Review criticized Paul both for foreign policy positions too different from mainstream Republicans and for changing his tune to be closer to mainstream Republicans. While that may seem a little ridiculous, it encapsulates the problem any libertarian leaning candidate will probably face to expand the Republican Party. And as a result of these challenges, there have been myriad discussions about how Rand Paul is doomed: the Atlantic stated that Paul’s media attention is largely a result of Washington elites being out of touch with the rest of the country, mistaking libertarianism as more viable than it really is. FiveThirtyEight calls Marco Rubio the “first real contender” in the Republican field.
It remains to be seen how Rand Paul will do in the primaries; the Republican race is fairly open right now and anyone could end up the victor. But more troubling is the notion that someone whose ideas might expand the party cannot win the nomination precisely because of those ideas. Is this the fault of the primary system?
Primaries may provide additional outlets of democracy so that nominating processes are not controlled by an aloof dominating political elite, but this additional layer of democracy has its own issues. One critique is that primary voters tend to be much more hardline than general elections voters and thus do not pick candidates who can win the general election. This is certainly the case in many congressional and gubernatorial elections. Examples might include Sharron Angle losing to Harry Reid after winning an unlikely primary or Christine O’Donnell’s loss to Chris Coons in Delaware in 2010. Of course, for each of these, there is also another example of a primary nominating a fairly extreme candidate that does pretty well in the general election; Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist, Mike Lee over Bob Bennett, and Rand Paul over Trey Grayson.
It’s also worth pointing out that presidential candidates from both parties since 1972 (when the primary system first began) have nominated fairly moderate candidates most of the time: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were somewhat moderate southern Democrats, John McCain was a fairly moderate candidate with the ability to pass some bipartisan bills, and Al Gore and George H.W. Bush were both sitting Vice Presidents. Candidates one could argue were too extreme might include Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, but of course both won their elections handily and couldn’t be considered shortfalls of the system. In fact one real critique of the primary system might be that it is not democratic enough as it failed to stop the renomination of Gerald Ford in 1976 (Reagan did well but not well enough) and Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Ted Kennedy mounted a successful challenge for a time).
Nonetheless, there is something extremely bizarre about all presidential campaigns starting in Iowa and New Hampshire. Why should they? These are not representative of the US, they have no large urban areas, and no diverse economies or people. There is an argument for allowing small states to have some early primaries to allow grassroots campaigns to pick up steam, but there is no real reason to always have it be the same small states. The Wikipedia article on the US Presidential Primary has several reform proposals, and while they would be more representative, they do not address the issue that primary voters are mostly party faithful and attempts to expand the party tend to end in failure. I’d even claim that the political landscape has been very slow to change since the 1980s, with Republican and Democratic political alliances largely staying the same (look at historical polls here and 2012 election here).
So if the Primary system isn’t the root of the problem, what is? Signs point to the underlying political system; a two party system can really only have a single political axis. Either you’re moving towards one party or the other party, and mix and matching your own issues won’t really work. What is needed is something allowing for more political parties, and the best option would be a mixed-member proportional representation system. It wouldn’t make the presidential selection process better directly, but it would inject real new ideas into the discussion. At that point, primaries would still have all the issues they have now (too expensive, allegedly pick too extreme candidates,etc) but since they would be taking place in a multi-polar political landscape, candidates could appeal to different sets of primary voters. We would then have far more primary voter populations who could find a good candidate.
One caveat: one might take the view that movement towards the political left is inevitable and continuous re-centering of the political divide towards the left will happen indefinitely. This would preclude the need for serious changes to the system since a Right-Left divide isn’t limiting, it’s unavoidable. But I don’t really buy that. Healthcare reform and gay marriage may have been moving inevitably to the Left, but free trade and 4th amendment issues have been moving irresistibly to the Right at the exact same time.
I think we really have reached the usefulness of this two party system and the current presidential primary set up. We agree that new ideas are needed but simultaneously agree they can’t gain traction in the system. We want new faces, but frontrunners include a former President’s spouse and another former President’s son (and brother), it is time to face the problem and reform the system. It’s time to disrupt the political market.