“Peer Review for Candidates”

A few weeks back, the Washington Post ran 38 short ideas from various commentators on fixing American democracy.  I wanted to flag Elaine Kamrack’s contribution, with the title above, which focused on changing the presidential nomination process.  It resonates with the views I’ve been expressing in more academic writing (eg, here).

Among her many accomplishments, Elaine has worked on four presidential campaigns and participated in ten nominating conventions.  Here’s her contribution:

In 2016, the Republicans nominated the least experienced and most temperamentally unsuited person to ever win the presidency. The leadership of the Republican Party sat powerless as an unknown and untested leader won primary after primary. In the end, the party did the only thing it could do in the modern nomination system: unite behind Donald Trump rather than risk alienating voters.

And now, nine months into the reign of President Chaos, all the fears about him are real. It wasn’t an act. The president is as inexperienced and as mercurial as he appeared in the campaign, and many are wondering how we got here.

For most of American history, the candidates who ran for president were chosen in a process that was almost entirely closed to the public. The selection was left to political parties or to what we now disparagingly call “superdelegates.” Ordinary citizens did not participate in the process of nominating presidential candidates, nor did they expect to. The process subjected candidates to an element of peer review. People with political and governmental experience evaluated nominees before the voters did.

It took only 40 years for the American nomination system to flip entirely. By 2008, the views of primary voters were considered the only legitimate views, while the views of party leaders were considered illegitimate at best and downright corrupt at worst. And thus in 2016 the system served up a man who could not have won the nomination had it been controlled by other political leaders.

So here’s an idea: Inject an element of peer review back into the nomination process. Require each party’s leaders, its members of Congress and its governors to pass formal judgment on presidential wannabes, and make them do it before the primaries. The voters might still reject the preferences of the party leaders — but at least they would have been warned.

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