Short answer: NOT the way we are doing it.
As I write this, Americans are looking at a choice that many find very unappealing: Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be sworn in on a cold Wednesday in January. This on the heels of the election of 2016, where both candidates were loathed to a historical degree. For what it’s worth, my opinion isn’t that Donald Trump is the “only person who could have beaten Hillary Clinton”, but rather that “Hillary Clinton was the only person who could have lost to Donald Trump”…but of course, that’s only speculation, and it serves no purpose now to dissect it further. This time around, Joe Biden doesn’t arouse the visceral disgust that Hillary did–you may not care for Joe, but he certainly doesn’t produce nearly the vitriol summoned by Hillary–but there are concerns that he’s aging quickly, that his long-standing proneness to gaffes is now something well beyond that, that he’s really losing it. I honestly think that if Joe were elected, it’s about 50/50 that he has the chops to finish even one term. And then there is President Trump; I won’t belabor this point, but suffice it to say that there are a whole lot of people who dread having these as the only two people with a realistic chance of being sworn in in 2021. The question is, why do we now seem to be finding ourselves again in the position of having two candidates that a significant percentage of Americans find to be some degree of awful? And what can we do about it?
I lay the blame in large measure on the process. We have a process perfectly designed to achieve the results we are getting…and so if our results are poor, then if we were smart (unfortunately, if by “we” I mean “our two primary political parties”, then the answer is, “we are categorically not smart”), we’d fix it; we’d overhaul the process. A futile endeavor, then, might the writing of this turn out to be, but it won’t be the first time I offer suggestions that will go unheeded, and I doubt seriously it will be the last.
The fix, as I see it, begins with our primary system. How do we fix it? Pretty easily, in my judgment: with the largest wrecking ball we can find. With strategically-placed explosives. With a wipe-the-slate-clean-and-start-over approach. In short, we abolish the entire primary system as we know it. No more of this inanity of pandering pols pretending that Iowa and New Hampshire actually matter to them. No more of these states’ inflated-beyond-all-sense-of-proportion influence on our presidential election system. No more of worthless primaries held well after outcomes have been decided. Yep, just burn down the primary system and don’t look back.
Next, limit the choices that party voters have to choose from. “What? We’re ‘Murricans. We want to be able to vote for whomever we darn well please!” To that I’d ask, “how’s that workin’ out for ya?”
Instead, the parties should limit the choices we have…to three, I would suggest, but no more than five. Period. Full stop. No more of these ridiculous 16-25 candidates being presented to voters. Chuck that. Forever. How to accomplish this? Let party leadership–make it a broad representation, sure, but the people who have risen to leadership roles within the party–engage in a vetting process. Instead of silly/pointless “debates” (that term is only barely descriptive of the charade that goes by the name), where voters get to see snippets of contenders sniping at each other in a made-for-TV extravaganza, where little substance issues forth and where the main thing seems to be to avoid some gaffe that could doom a candidacy, let those policy differences be discussed behind closed doors. No cameras. Let each candidate explain in detail his/her position on various issues. Let there be a free-wheeling discussion, but in front of the people best positioned to know what they are looking for in a candidate–and what they aren’t.
Further, let the party fund advertising that is divvied up equally between its 3-5 candidates. On as level a playing field as possible, we get to know where the candidates stand on the issues rather than slickly-produced silliness such as most political commercials are. If a political party is functioning as it should, it will do what it can to field electable candidates and inform the electorate on why its policies should be preferred; advertising could be used to accomplish this, were there the political will to do it.
Next, whatever replaces our hopeless primary system, whatever method of voting parties use, make that voting closed to all but people who are members of that given party. That means I (an independent) get no vote. This is a good thing. I don’t deserve a vote in these matters, any more than a person who is not a member of my church gets a vote on who our church’s elders should be. I am not disenfranchised by this; I get my vote in November like everyone else. But I am not owed a vote or any say in the affairs of any entity to which I do not belong, such as a political party. ‘Tain’t my business. Both parties, spurred on by Limbaugh-types, have had people who engaged in “crossover” primary voting, in states where primaries are open. It’s legal. It’s also wrong, and for that reason, it shouldn’t be legal. The determination of the nominee of a given party ought to rest solely with the members of that party.
So at some point, on one day all across the country, Democrats and Republicans head to the polls to determine which nominee they believe will be the best representative of their party in the general election.
Does this guarantee great candidates? No, but it should go a long way toward keeping us out of the situation that seems to be regularly presenting itself to us these days, the sense that, of 330+ million people in this country, these are the two we consider the best for this job?
Finally, in the general election, adopt ranked choice voting. It just makes sense. For that matter, use ranked choice voting in every election we have.
In the end, what do we have to lose? Seems to me that just about anything beats the way we do it currently.