Phil Power: Bring back the smoke-filled room!

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    Phil Power_B4_Feb_22Well, the votes are in; the millions spent on TV ads, and the candidates have moved on. But when you survey the results of the Michigan Republican primary election, all I can say is:

      “Bring back the smoke-filled room!”

      That’s not because of the way things turned out. What bothers me are all the evils that go along with the primary election process. 

     I wasn’t surprised that Mitt Romney squeaked out a win over Rick Santorum. After all, his father, George Romney, was elected governor here three times in a row, and old-timers like me still remember him with some affection.

      In some of his TV ads, Mitt made no bones about his own affection for his native state. He talked fondly about growing up in Michigan and saying the election was “personal.” During one speech, he even opined that our trees were “about the right height.”

     In fact, you might have expected that he would have won easily. But the outcome was hardly a convincing victory for Romney, with all he had going for him here. He picked up endorsements from virtually the entire Republican hierarchy, from Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on down. Romney started the campaign with a double-digit lead, only to quickly fall behind before recovering. In the end, he won by less than half the margin he piled up four years ago over John McCain.

     Put another way, about three in every five Michigan primary voters rejected their native son, as did two-thirds of the state’s counties. That may be in part because of the constant  barrage of anti-Romney ads launched by the Santorum camp.

     Not exactly the best way to help position the ticket for November! Yet picking nominees via primary elections is now the “democratic” norm, both in Michigan and nationally. That’s too bad.

     Among the many things that troubled me this time were the weight accorded a few ultra-rich donors and the skewing of the entire campaign toward a small but intense base of very conservative activists. Worst of all were the ads. TV screens throughout the state were clogged with political ads, at once both sanctimonious and harsh, from the candidates. I found it hard to tell the difference between the spots paid for by the Romney and Santorum campaigns themselves and those of their accompanying “super PACs,” anonymously funded by multi-millionaires and sanitized as “independent” of the actual campaigns by the U. S. Supreme Court.

     The Michigan Truth Squad, a fact-checking program of The Center for Michigan, assigned “foul” or “technical foul” calls to a majority of the ads from both campaigns for outright misstatements, unsubstantiated inferences and simple personal innuendo.

     The robocalls that infested so many homes around the dinner hour represented their own form of entrapment as well. 

     Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed our democracy was “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Turns out these days it’s become largely the product of the millionaires, bought by the millionaires and (I fear) conducted for the interests of the millionaires.  And because the target audience in the Michigan primary was the right wing of the GOP, the dominant campaign rhetoric was mainly shameless pandering to hard-right ideology. The main effect primary elections have on our political institutions is to let activists on the fringe determine the kinds of candidates normal people are supposed to vote for in general elections. 

     That’s a very odd way to manage a political system.

     I remember when I was a (very) young man being allowed to sit (silently) in the “midnight caucus” at Democratic Party state conventions. That was the device at which party bosses discussed the merits and demerits of the candidates for office and issued “leadership recommendations” to the party faithful. 

     Although only a minority of party bosses actually smoked cigars, this was our equivalent of the smoke-filled room of legend.

    What strikes me about those meetings is how knowing and probing the discussions were. The bosses knew all the candidates well, their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Some might be womanizers, others hard drinkers. Some had deservedly distinguished records.

     Others were frauds. 

     However, whatever their morals, the bosses knew their own continued power depended on picking candidates who were not only competent to fill office but also capable of standing up to the scrutiny of a campaign without embarrassing themselves or their party.

      The boys in the back room had a self-interest in picking winners. The scrutiny of the smoke-filled room was much, much harsher and more candid than all the glitzy TV ads and robocalls. 

     Sadly, today, in the name of “democracy,” we have changed the rules. We now have primary elections conducted primarily to pander to the ideologues amongst us. These elections are for the most part paid for by unelected, unrepresentative wealthy individuals and interest groups. And the image-mongering that has substituted for the gimlet-eyed judgment of professional party bosses often winds up picking the least capable and least qualified among the candidates.

     Don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to risk the consequences of a little second-hand smoke if we could just bring back a system for picking candidates that made sense. 

       ***

    Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net

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