Most of the commentary that’s surrounded Joe Biden’s touchy-feely approach to interpersonal relations misses what it tells us about the nature of presidential politics today. Biden is under attack by what we might call the New Bosses of politics, and it looks like they’re going to chew him up and spit him out. The likely result: exeunt Joe Biden from the presidential race before it even begins.
And who are these New Bosses? Well, they certainly aren’t the old-fashioned kind, those machine pols of a bygone era who controlled the party apparatus in the states and thus held the greatest influence over who would go to national conventions and choose the party’s presidential candidates. Those guys have been neutered by waves of reforms that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s to address the perceived problem of the old system being insufficiently democratic.
So now pollsters, commentators, and money guys have assumed the role that the old machine pols once played—winnowing down the field before the voters have a chance to cast a single ballot. The irony here is hard to miss, yet it gets almost no attention as the newfangled process proceeds.
For purposes of explanation, some history is in order. Until relatively recently, most state parties controlled the selection of national convention candidates—and by extension, the eventual nominee—through caucus systems and state conventions. This approach gave rise to the so-called smoke-filled rooms, where the inside game was played in a carefully controlled environment.
True, a reform surge in 1912 resulted in more and more state primaries choosing convention delegates and nominees. But that system never really took root until much later, and it became clear with historical perspective that the reforms were largely a ploy by Theodore Roosevelt to upend the reelection prospects of the sitting Republican president, William Howard Taft. Taft had been TR’s cherished friend and chosen successor until Roosevelt came to identify him as a major impediment to his reclaiming the White House. Roosevelt’s fiery slogan, “Let the people rule,” later lost some of its luster when, running as a third-party candidate, he instructed his convention to exclude Southern blacks as a sop to conservative Southern whites. “I believe that the great majority of the Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for suffrage,” TR declared, demonstrating that he wasn’t above letting just some of the people rule if it enhanced his electoral prospects.
In subsequent decades, the primary became enshrined in the politics of both parties—but only in a few states and designed largely to help party bosses glean the vote-getting capacities of the leading candidates. A good example involved John F. Kennedy’s 1960 nomination bid. He won the Wisconsin primary that year, but not by enough to convince the bosses that he could overcome the Catholic issue. So the bosses made clear that Kennedy and his entourage would have to trudge down to the next primary state, West Virginia, to prove he could cadge votes from Protestants. He did and was awarded the nomination.
This tells us that the bosses had one thing most firmly in mind—electability. They wanted to weed out candidates who might bring their parties down with scandal or veer off into unseemly ideological territory or generally run dumb campaigns. It wasn’t very democratic, but it worked. The bosses were the gatekeepers. They determined whether an ambitious politician really had the chops to enter the race.
But then the reformist zeal of the ‘60s and ‘70s yielded up a new system of almost endless primaries. Now, it was said, the people would finally be allowed to rule.
But consider how this system has evolved over the decades. First, presidential campaigns began earlier and earlier: they now start at the beginning of the year before the campaign year. And what kind of campaign is it? Do the people choose? No, this early campaign doesn’t involve voters. It is designed to determine, through extra-political means, who gets to be a candidate and what kind of standing the candidates will have as they enter the balloting season.
It works like this: first, the pollsters assess where these candidates stand with the voters. Of course, this is based merely on public opinion surveys at a time when the voters haven’t really begun thinking about the election at all. So it’s largely a matter of name recognition. Obscure office-seekers begin with a handicap.
Then the commentators weigh in, particularly the cable news people, based in large measure on those polls. If you don’t look good in the polls, you aren’t taken seriously by the talking heads, and that can stymie your political standing before you even get started. Also, your fundraising prospects become increasingly dim.
Then come the debates. With a large field, as we had in 2016 with the Republicans and have this year with the Democrats, you don’t even get into the debates unless you have demonstrated a certain level of fundraising prowess and standing in the polls. That standing will likely determine where you end up in the debate lineup—at the center, conveying extra gravitas, or at the ends, showing also-ran status.
Then your performance in the debates will be endlessly picked over and assessed by the talking heads, and a new round of vetting begins. The pundits tell the country who’s up and who’s down, and that influences the poll results and fundraising all over again.
Now bear in mind that, while all of this is going on, no one has cast a single vote for anybody. But the vetting process still runs. The haunting question is whether the attributes that generate success in this pre-vote process are the ones needed to run the country—or even to run a traditional campaign in which the voters are at the center of it all.
This entire pre-campaign campaign has only become more treacherous with the rise of political correctness and the #MeToo movement. That’s because small rivulets of angry political sentiment can be amplified by the cable guys into something far more politically significant than they really are.
Which brings us back to Joe Biden. David Brooks said it well on the PBS NewsHour the other evening when he noted that some of the touchy-feely practices of old-fashioned pols made him uncomfortable when he first encountered them. But he came to understand that this was just a part of life practiced by certain kinds of people who were not trying to signal anything sexual or unbecoming. It may be easy to laugh at Biden’s suggestion that he got caught in a warp of changing social custom, but it happens to be true. And as Brooks pointed out, there is no reason to see this as demonstrating a lack of character on the part of Biden, who through nearly five decades of public service, in the eye of national scrutiny, has not stirred even whispers about sexual wandering or abuse.
But it probably won’t matter. The New Bosses of our political system are in the process of passing judgment on Uncle Joe in lieu of the voters. They’re the vetters now, and they do their work without sentimentality or even a discernible degree of compassion. The smoke-filled room has been supplanted by the green room, and the result isn’t more democracy, just an uglier version of the old kind.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.