House Speaker Paul Ryan emphatically said that he is not a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination today.
It's funny though, that some pundits are still sniffing around for some clue in the statement indicating that his arm could still be twisted.
I think Ryan can be taken at his word for the simple reason that for GOP House members facing contested elections this fall, there will be a felt need to distance themselves from the likely Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Ryan seems intent on developing a House Republican platform separate from what a Trump or Cruz-dominated Republican convention is likely to produce, allowing GOP candidates for the lower chamber to argue, "The Trump (or the Cruz) platform isn't what we believe," thus improving their chances of winning.
Ryan's inspiration for a separate Republican House platform that candidates could run on across the country is likely the Contract with America, the set of pledges GOP House candidates under the leadership of Newt Gingrich ran on in 1994.
That year was the first midterm contest of Bill Clinton's presidency and many feel that the Contract was so compelling that it gave the Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
If the Contract is Ryan's inspiration (or just the "port in the storm" to which he's clinging for dear life), the analogy between 2016 and 1994 is almost non-existent.
Built in to every midterm election is a predisposition of voters to turn to the party opposing the incumbent president as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction.
Also, Republican candidates for the House will be forced, if Ryan intends to create an agenda separate from the party's official platform, to do a contortionist's dance, claiming the same party identification as the presidential nominee, repudiating that nominee's policies, and courting Trump or Cruz supporters, all at the same time. Lots of luck with that!
But more interesting to me than Ryan's decision not to run and what it might mean is something else he said in his statement:
"I simply believe that if you want to be the nominee for our party – to be the president – you should actually run for it."Really?
There's a whole tradition in American presidential politics of turning to candidates who weren't actually seeking the office. It's rare, I'll grant. And it hasn't always produced the best presidents. But there have been a few really inspired choices.
Take, for example, the country's first (and arguably, greatest) president, George Washington. Washington was a dutiful man who, when he was young hungered for "fame," a term that then meant much more than wanting to be a reality TV store so that everyone will know your name and that you can market perfumes or clothes under your brand. Fame in Washington's Day was all about living a life of brave nobility and useful service to their fellow citizens.
But by the time America prepared to elect its first president, Washington had had as much of fame as any person could expect. He had led the United States in the Revolutionary War, hailed as a transcendent hero. Then, the general walked away from the offer of supreme dictatorial power over the newly independent country, an act that caused King George III to declare Washington "the greatest man in the world."
After retiring to Mount Vernon, Washington became concerned about how the increasingly fragmented states, operating under the anemic Articles of Confederation, was at risk of losing both its independence and liberty. He knew that a strong central government was needed. And so, despite wanting to stay clear of politics, Washington enlisted in the cause to establish a new framework for US governance, what became the Constitution.
Washington didn't want to be chief executive of the new nation. But, he had no ability to resist. He couldn't avoid taking the office. History shows that his was a magnificent, precedent-setting two terms.
I would argue that if we could find some genuinely reluctant person with a proven track record of leadership, someone who didn't campaign in 2016 and didn't ache to be president, that person might be a far better president than some of the choices we are being given right now.
And such a person wouldn't have to come from the professional political class, the military, or the business world, the three realms from which we tend to draw our presidents.
Donald Trump complains these days about needing to collect a majority of delegates to his party's convention, 1237, in order to be nominated.
But in much of presidential nominating convention history, candidates had to collect two-thirds of the delegate votes. This often caused protracted convention balloting.
- Lincoln was nominated by the Republicans in 1860, on the third ballot.
- John William Davis was nominated by the Democrats to run against President Calvin Coolidge on the 103rd ballot. Sixty candidates were nominated for the presidency. (The Democrats wouldn't have stood a chance against Coolidge that year. So don't think that the large numbers of ballots somehow "weakened" Davis' chances.)
- Franklin Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats on the fourth ballot in his first run for the presidency in 1932.
In the future, I'd like to see national conventions maintained, and not as the sorts of Politburo rubber stamps of the arcane process that we usually get every four years or as partisan pep rallies. This process usually yields safe, sanitized, boring, and platitude-filled festivals of self-congratulation designed to sell the American voter on their nominee as the true object of their heart's desire.
To fix the current process, why not dust off an old proposal? Hold five or six regional primaries every presidential season. They would occur over a period of two months, compressing the process, but making it long enough to give candidates the once-over. There would then be a one-month long general election campaign.
This approach would accomplish several things:
- First, it would de-emphasize the peculiarities of individual states. For example, most states aren't interested in ethanol. Iowa, sight of the first presidential caucuses, is. But candidates who oppose or are indifferent to ethanol can get badly beaten in Iowa and hurt their future chances.
- Second, regional primaries would nonetheless elevate the concerns of whole regions, such as the restoration of manufacturing jobs and new job opportunities here in the Midwest.
- Third, because the candidates would be overtly campaigning over a period of several months, you could still find the development of "momentum" that would allow candidates to secure nominations on the first ballots of their conventions, something that's become routine in recent decades.
- Fourth, you would avoid campaigns needing massive sums of money at the start, which is exactly what would be needed if you had a single national primary. Someone like Bernie Sanders, who is giving Hillary Clinton a more spirited campaign than most would have imagined possible, would have almost no chance at gaining traction if there were a single national primary day. (He has almost no chance as it is, given how the Democratic National Committee has so clearly tried stacking the deck in Clinton's favor this pre-convention season.)
- Fifth, by affording the delegates and candidates to influence and compromise in light of developments after the last regional primary takes place, the conventions would retain their meaning. But there would be no superdelegates or the GOP equivalents. Delegates, all democratically elected, would then democratically nominate a candidate, even if that candidate wasn't delegates' or voters' first choices, even if the nominee hadn't run that year.
Often, candidates with "fire in their bellies," a consuming covetousness toward the presidency, can't be trusted once in office. Kennedy and Nixon were both dirty tricksters who stained the presidency. So did Lyndon Johnson.
The framers of the Constitution, of course, never anticipated a process in which people outside the aristocracy would have much say in who became president.
But they had a healthy view of human nature; they understood that there are very few George Washingtons around, unquestioned and trustworthy people of integrity. That's why they established an extensive system of checks and balances in our government, someone somewhere almost always in place to keep the worst excesses of other government officials in check.
They also anticipated that the president would be someone who had established a positive reputation of integrity, success in some field, success in leading people toward a common goal, and knowledge of the laws, traditions, and principles of democracy. And when these leaders, some of whom were electors in America's first presidential election, considered who to vote for, they did so for the guy who wasn't running.
Contrary to the words of Paul Ryan today, I think that America would be well served if we thought outside the box and, whether in the regional primary idea I resurrect here or at a national convention, parties felt free to nominate candidates for the presidency who don't salivate for the office and who are neither venal, corrupt, nor disturbingly authoritarian.
The best way to get that possibility, I think, is to thoroughly democratize the election of convention delegates, continue requiring that nominees have a majority of delegate votes, and hold conventions that are allowed to be democratic enough, after determining that the candidates who've been running can't win a general election or couldn't be trusted to adhere to the Constitution or laws of this country, to turn to someone else.
A process like the one outlined above could result in someone more like Lincoln than Richard Nixon...and the country would be much better for it.