06 November 2008

The decomposition is complete

The last thing the Founders wanted in a president was a man who could get the job simply by being a golden-mouthed demagogue. That ship sailed long ago and has now arrived at its ultimate destination, as George Will explains:

Under [the Founders’] 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…was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the popular arts of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders…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…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.
Part of the very real, and dangerous problem is that the Office of The President has become, like the Supreme Court, for more important to our daily lives than it was envisioned.


About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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