Did we learn anything about the Republican primary battle in Wednesday night’s debate? Basically, there are two contests going on at once. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are competing to be the most compelling anti-politician. Trump showed flashes of wit, but there are signs that his schtick is wearing thin. Carson came across as earnest, thoughtful, and intelligent, and he has just as a much of a claim to outsider status as Trump. Fiorina was legitimately awesome, in large part because she manages to be disciplined without coming across as robotic. She was so well-briefed that every other candidate on the stage, with the exception of Marco Rubio, who was also polished and prepared, ought to have felt embarrassed. The main flaw of the anti-politician type is that the anti-politician is generally not as knowledgeable as she or he ought to be about the issues of the day. Fiorina is an anti-politician who knows what she’s talking about, or at least who does an insanely good job of faking it. She will thrive.
So that’s the anti-politicians. The other contest is the one among the Republican regulars, and here you get the sense that we will soon see a great winnowing. Ted Cruz badly wants to be in the anti-politician lane, but he’s not pulling it off. Still, his healthy self-regard will keep him in the race indefinitely. I’m guessing that Scott Walker will stick around for at least another few weeks, though he didn’t help himself all that much last night. Mike Huckabee is the most polished speaker, and he loses nothing by remaining in the race. Rubio was by far the best of the conventional candidates, but what he really needs is for panicking Jeb donors to flock to him, and it’s not clear that they will. Rand Paul is finally recognizing that he should own his libertarianism, and stop trying to soften his rough edges to appeal to the GOP mainstream. He’ll stick around. If I had to choose, I’d say that Chris Christie will be the next candidate to go, despite the fact that he did a solid job last night. What is Christie giving us that, say, Jeb or John Kasich are not? I’ll bet many of his loyal supporters are asking themselves that same question.
But my main takeaway from this debate is that the way Republicans choose their candidate for America’s highest office is totally crazy. When Christie showed flashes of brilliance, I kept wondering, Why didn’t he run in 2012? Oh yeah: He probably didn’t run for the same reason that Mitch Daniels, then two-term governor of Indiana, adored by wonky conservatives everywhere, didn’t run. Primary campaigns have become long, demoralizing, and obscenely expensive affairs. During the last go-around, Mitt Romney spent $391 million to become the Republican presidential nominee, and Romney has hundreds of millions of dollars and an army of rich, loyal friends. Suffice it to say, these qualities are not shared by all of the Republicans who’d make pretty decent presidents.
Back when conservatives were still licking their wounds from Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, Jeffrey H. Anderson and Jay Cost argued that the Republican presidential-nomination process was broken, and they offered a roadmap for how to fix it. When I first read their proposal, I thought it was nuts. Having endured just a few short months of intra-Republican presidential bloodletting, I now think it’s brilliant. I mean, it’s still impracticable. But their roadmap would attract higher-quality candidates, and it would leave future Republican nominees in a stronger position come the general election.
What is wrong with the GOP presidential-nomination process, according to Anderson and Cost? The short answer is that it forces candidates to start building campaign apparatuses years in advance. The process has evolved into such a painful slog that many talented would-be candidates conclude that it would be sheer masochism to take part. The result is that Republicans wind up with a relatively small number of legitimate contenders, their plausibility being determined largely by their ability to raise tens of millions of dollars from hedge funders, used-car barons, and industrialists, and then a larger number of colorful characters with no realistic shot at the nomination, who use the seemingly endless series of primary debates to build their personal brands. These debates, in turn, give media organizations outsized influence over the process—by stoking petty personal conflicts among candidates, and by focusing on manufactured controversies over substantive policy questions, the cable news networks seem more intent on embarrassing candidates than on encouraging serious deliberation. And finally, the presidential nomination process as it stands empowers a relatively small number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, as the contests in those states are so essential to creating “momentum” for one candidate or another.
With all of this in mind, Anderson and Cost envision a Republican Nominating Convention, in which roughly 3,300 delegates, 3,000 of whom would be elected by rank-and-file Republicans in their local communities and the remainder of whom would be Republican officeholders, would select five official candidates. Let’s focus on how this would work if there weren’t an incumbent Republican president. (This process would work a bit differently if there were one.) Each delegate would begin the process by listing up to five prospective candidates, listed in order of preference. This would yield a mammoth list of potential candidates, which would be whittled down over several rounds of votes. I won’t bore you with the mechanics, but the basic idea is that you’d eventually be left with a manageable number of candidates who’d then be asked if they actually wanted the nomination, and those who said they were up for it would then be whittled down to five officially-sanctioned candidates.
The best part of this kooky scheme? This convention would take place in February of the year of the election. These candidates would then take part in a series of debates, moderated by Republicans for Republicans, interspersed with a series of three regional primaries, in which party members would vote for their favorite candidates. The idea is that you’d have a debate and then a big, multistate primary, then another debate and another multi-state primary, and then … you get the idea. One complicating factor is that these “primaries” wouldn’t be primaries as we know them, as state governments would resist losing their influence and their ability to control their own primaries. But in this system, the GOP nominee would be chosen by the end of April at the latest. Such a short, focused campaign would give less-moneyed candidates a better shot at securing the nomination, and it would free up candidates with real jobs to focus on them rather than on begging Sheldon Adelson for his sweet casino money.
Why am I so taken with this idea? Imagine the kind of campaign we’d be having now if Anderson and Cost’s nomination process were in place. As matters stand, name recognition plays an outsized role, and the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump puts every other candidate on the defensive. Under Anderson and Cost’s process, you might have candidates currying favor with the grassroots Republicans who’d take part in a nomination convention, but this wouldn’t really involve chasing headlines by making outrageous statements. It would mean cultivating ties with local GOP organizations around the country. We might have dozens of Republicans, including the governors of Michigan, Tennessee, and Indiana, or quirky civic and religious leaders, trying their hand at becoming the fifth of the official nominees. Why the hell not? Winning over a few hundred delegates is a lot cheaper than trying to defeat a Romney or a Bush by outspending him on TV ads. And by the time we got around to actually having debates, we would have no more than five candidates, who would have the breathing room to actually discuss the issues that matter. I’m under no illusion that Anderson and Cost’s approach will win out any time soon. But the Republican Party, and American democracy, would be better for it.