In a Presidential contest replete with novelties, none was more significant than this: A candidate's campaign—for his party's nomination, then for the presidency—was itself virtually the entire validation of his candidacy. Voters have endorsed Barack Obama's audacious—but not, they have said, presumptuous—proposition, which was: The skill, tenacity, strategic vision and tactical nimbleness of my campaign is proof that I am presidential timber.
Because imitation is the sincerest form of politics, the 2008 campaign will not be the last in which such a proposition is asserted. Obama's achievement represents the final repudiation of the Founders' intentions regarding the selection, and hence the role, of presidents. So Americans should understand the long evolution of the selection process.
It is strange but true: Presidential politics, although of paramount importance, is a game without settled rules. More than two centuries after ratification of the Constitution, there is no stable system for selecting presidential candidates.
James W. Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, notes that, contrary to conventional understanding, the Constitution created not three but four "national institutions." They are the Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency—and the presidential selection system, based on the Electoral College. "The question of presidential selection," Ceaser writes, "was just that important to the Founders."
Under their plan, the nomination of candidates and the election of the president were to occur simultaneously. Electors meeting in their respective states, in numbers equal to their states' senators and representatives, would vote for two people for president. The electors' winnowing of aspirants was the nomination process. When the votes were opened in the U.S. House of Representatives, the candidate with a majority would become president, the runner-up would become vice president. If no person achieved a majority of electoral votes, the House would pick from among the top five vote getters. Note well: The selection of presidential nominees was to be controlled by the Constitution.
The Founders' intent, Ceaser writes, was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the "popular arts" of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders, Ceaser says, "were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction." That deployment would invite demagoguery, which subverts moderation. "Brilliant appearances," wrote John Jay in The Federalist Papers 64, "… sometimes mislead as well as dazzle." By telling members of the political class how not to get considered for the presidency, the Founders hoped to (in Ceaser's words) "make virtue the ally of interest" and shape the behavior of that class.
The Founders' presidential selection system, the first of six the nation has had so far, was feasible only when it was dispensable—in the first two elections, when George Washington was everyone's preference. By the time he left office in 1797, political parties, which were not anticipated when the Constitution was drafted just 10 years earlier, were coalescing.
Subsequent systems included: The selection of presidential candidates by the parties' congressional caucuses (1796–1820); nonpartisan selection (1824–28); national nominating conventions controlled by parties' organizations (1832–1908); a system of such conventions leavened by popular choice through a few state party primaries and caucuses (1912–68)—in 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without entering any primaries; since 1972, selection of nominees entirely by popular choice. Thus have conventions been reduced from deliberative bodies to mere ratifying bodies.
The brief nonpartisan system of candidate selection alarmed some thoughtful people because it left ambitious individuals unconstrained by any dependency. Hence the desire to involve the parties in presidential selection, thereby requiring aspirants to submit to principles and agendas not entirely their own. From 1832 until 1936, Democratic conventions required a nominee to win two thirds of the delegates. This constrained candidates by essentially giving a veto to any geographic region. Barack Obama completed the long march away from the Founders' intent. Most recent presidential candidacies have been exercises of personal political entrepreneurship; his campaign, powered by the "popular art" of oratory, was the antithesis of the Founders' system.
The Progressives of 100 years ago wanted to popularize presidential selection by rewarding candidates gifted in the popular art of inflaming excitement through oratory. They opened a door through which, eventually, strode George Wallace, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean and others.
Ceaser notes that the candidate whose path to the presidency most resembled Obama's was Jimmy Carter. He, too, used an intensely personal and inspirational appeal to compensate for a thin résumé. Having courted the public with flattering rhetoric—promising "a government as good as the American people"—Carter came a cropper as president, partly because he was a one-man political startup. He had been selected by a process that rewarded running as a solitary savior, offering his personal qualities—his supposed moral excellence—as the key to national improvement.
Sensible Americans hope President-elect Obama has a better fate. They also should ponder the implications of the selection process that begins again, soon.