Some souls lately have been making offhand remarks, as though jesting (only they really weren't) that it's time to return to the smoke-filled room to pick presidential candidates. The "ha-ha's" and grins that follow are not all impish, for some are accompanied by a resolute nod of the nead.
This turn away from the Great Reform of the delegate selection process -- as wrought by McGovernites in 1972 -- is hardly a compliment to President Jimmy Carter, one of the reform's great beneficiaries. But the president should not sulk. These scattered expressions of yearning for the old smoke-filled room where a handful of party bosses pick the nominee are also symptomatic of the urge to simplify the increasingly complex government and political process.
Now the republic has always been afflicted with presidential primaries. They didn't begin with the McGovern Reform period. But they have proliferated in number from 17 in 1968, to 30 in 1976, and 35 are currently scheduled for 1980. Additionally, there are several states where selection is by caucuses, and many states where the convention becomes a demonstration project in people's democracy. Crisscrossing the republic to get at even a majority of those 35 primary states, and perhaps another dozen where the process is different, is a wearisome, expensive project indeed.
One consequence of this broadening of the selection process is that presidential aspirants become virtual prisoners of the jet plane, the speeding candidate's car or bus, the lookalike motel room, the mediocre campaign meal, and the stand-up press conference where picayunish attention to detail is a must, else the press sharks render the man as a boob.
A more regrettable consequence is the deterioration of mind and body (damaged bladders, ulcerated innards, bloodshot eyes, incipient cases of phlebitis) among aspirants, exhausted staffers and the rapidly jading press corps charged with bringing this civic story to millions of fickle readers.
When it is all over, the nominee is the man who mastered and endured the process, and he isn't necessarily a first-rate man. A man with seeming advantages -- say, as President Ford had with his incumbency in 1976 -- can nearly be knocked out of the ring through the primaries if a fellow -- say, a Ronald Reagan -- challenges him with a fine-tuned primary-shatching apparatus.
Moreover, the party system is weakened by spreading the process film-thin and making it all so unpredictable. Who wants to be a party regular, sweating, panting and performing for years, only to be dumped as a delegate, thus losing a trip to Detroit or New York in 1980? Forlorn were those Democratic Party wheelhorses made to stand outside George McGovern's convention hall in 1972, while the ragtags of political life passed through security gates like cardinals en route to elect a pope.
The Democrats, being more natural with politics than the GOP, realized the excesses of such egalitarianism, and in 1978 decided to: 1) shorten the primary season, thus causing a ruckus heard in great decibels in Massachusetts and 2) expand each state delegation by 10 percent to let in state party and elected officials (those poor stiffs who stood outside in 1972).
Republicans pretty much let the states decide how delegates are selected, but like Avis, must offer something to compete with the Democrats, so they "broadened" considerably after 1972. But Republicans don't like too much noise or tumult, so their process has been a bit neater. In 1980, by the way, there will be 1,993 delegates at the GOP convention, far fewer than the 3,331 Democratic delegates.
For all the bellowing about how much more democratic the reform process has been, the books show that proportionately fewer people are voting in primaries. So instead of the old bosses chomping cigars and slurping bourbon and branch water in some hotel room, we have, perhaps, just as dedicated a minority nominating by virtue of superhuman effort in primaries.
Thus, we once had a collection of generally broad-minded, practical politicians trying to market the best product -- the candidate -- for the Democratic or Republican parties, and we now have an admittedly larger collection of folk, many resembling those insistently holy Sunday School teachers, doing the same job.
I always preferred cigars and professional politicians to position papers and technocratic popinjays. The cigar smokers have a better record in summoning first-class men.