Politics & Policy

What Primaries Are For

Right, Left, and whatever.

It’s one of the funnier ironies of American presidential politics that the people who fancy themselves to be the most politically informed boast the silliest rationale for how they vote. I’m referring of course to “independents.” There are two kinds.

The first are the serious independents. Their shtick goes something like this: “I’m an independent-minded guy (or gal), I don’t let the parties do my thinking for me. I choose each individual candidate based on his or her individual merits. I am a very discerning and thoughtful person.” If you’ve ever listened to C-SPAN, you’ve heard from these people. They sound like midlevel college administrators with chips on their shoulders. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed, cookie-cut, “defined” by “mere labels” that don’t take into account their discerning eye for the odd policy detail. “Did you know that candidate so-and-so doesn’t have a policy on saving the manatees? Or didn’t you do your homework?” They brag about how they look at every issue without ideological blinders on, and how they’ll be damned if they are going to vote for a candidate merely because of “partisanship.” They want to hear about issues and experience.

In the second group are the “undecided” independents.

These are the people we hear from the most in the final weeks of any presidential campaign, largely because politicians are going to hunt where the ducks are and, duh, the undecideds haven’t decided yet. After every presidential debate of the general election, there’s a focus group filled with undecideds; they’re treated like Olympic judges rather than astoundingly uninformed citizens. They complain that they didn’t get enough information from the candidates, or they didn’t get enough “details” on this or that policy. They ape Rodin’s Thinker over whether to choose George W. Bush or Al Gore, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, Poppy Bush or Michael Dukakis.

Here’s how one undecided explained her thinking in 2000 to the Boston Globe: “One day I’m for Gore (her mother called from California to say he’d protect the environment), the next day it’s Bush (she thinks he’s funny). . . . If I had to go out to dinner with one of them, I’d choose Bush. . . . But here’s what goes through my mind. Let’s say a meteorite was coming toward Earth. Who has the better judgment?… I wish I could decide.’”

Now, I am all for taking civic responsibilities seriously, particularly voting. I’d greatly prefer very low voter turnout among serious-minded people to high voter turnout among people who saunter into the voting booths between trips to the mall and the face-piercing spa. But let me make one thing very clear: Being undecided, in and of itself, is not a mark of seriousness or intelligence. If you really are undecided between having a bowl of strawberry ice cream and being smacked in the forehead with a garden rake, you’re not very intelligent; you’re just very, very stoopid.

No, I’m not saying that all undecideds are dumb, and I’m not saying that the choices in presidential elections are as cut-and-dried as the strawberry ice cream versus the garden-rake smack. But what I am saying is that the rush to show one’s independence of mind in contests between Republican and Democratic candidates usually stems from intellectual vanity and insecurity, not intellectual discernment or rigor.

There’s nothing wrong–and there’s actually a great deal that is right–with being independent-minded on the issues, on art, on music, fashion, food…whatever. So long as it isn’t a pose. Conformity based upon sound judgment is certainly more admirable than acting like a jackass to prove you’re different. Our culture mocks those who join the herd, to be sure. We exalt the drummer who marches to his own beat. But the herd laughs its butt off at the maverick who prances around outside the herd right when the wolf pack shows up. And we only admire the solo drummer when he’s very, very good. If all he does is smush around a chicken leg on his drum, we don’t applaud, we call a nurse.

Back to politics, I can even see the case for being an independent when voting for a senator or congressman.

But in a presidential contest between even a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican, the idea that it’s a very hard decision to choose between the parties strikes me as batty. One of the reasons the media glorifies independents is that the press tends to share their view of politics: that there’s no meaningful difference between the parties. This is nonsense squared.

Which gets me to the point of this inverted pyramid of a column. The time to be discerning–to pore over every jot and detail of a candidate’s platform–is not during the general election, but during the primaries. By the time a candidate wins the nomination, you’re voting for Democrats versus Republicans, not for George W. Bush versus Al Gore. In Britain it may be more obvious that you elect parties to power, but the same thing happens here. The modern presidency involves thousands upon thousands of political appointments, and these folks are drawn nigh-upon exclusively from the ranks of their own party–which in very broad brushstrokes has its own agenda, regardless of who’s at the top. Personnel is policy, as the saying goes.

The Democratic party at the national level is, generally speaking, pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-welfare state (yes, yes, I know the GOP is inching closer to the Dems on this one), pro-gun control, anti-death penalty (with some clever exceptions), and quite comfortable with high taxes and strict regulations. Culturally, it is more apt to celebrate multiculturalism over assimilation and gay pride over tolerance for gays. When leftists hector a Democratic president he will, in all likelihood, listen intently rather than yawn. And, most important, on foreign policy Democrats will stress the importance of words and international law over action and American sovereignty. The war on terror will be seen more like a law-enforcement issue than, well, a war. Obviously, there will be variability among individual Democrats, but those are the trend lines and institutional pressures.

The Republican party sees things largely in reverse.

In other words, “partisanship” isn’t always about mindlessly belonging to a club. Sometimes it’s about mindfully fighting for the philosophy that best describes your view of where the nation should be going.

Now, many conservatives have been writing me in recent weeks, in response to my increasingly critical comments about President Bush, to say that maybe conservatives shouldn’t vote for him. I think that’s silly. On any issue of major importance to conservatives, there isn’t a Democrat running who wouldn’t be an order of magnitude worse. Indeed, even if, say, Joe Lieberman’s Joe-Mentum had caught on, and he won the nomination, he would still be filling his administration from a Democratic bench. The gravitational forces of the party largely determine the course of policy. The Democratic dogma is instinctually to err on the side of government action. Republican dogma, at least for now, is to err on the side of individual initiative and the market.

Now, if you think George Bush is moving the Republican party–and the federal government–too much in an “I feel your pain” direction, I, um, feel your pain. That might have been worth bringing up during the 2000 GOP primaries when we had a shot at changing the direction of the party. But now, George W. Bush is the guy. He’s doing a great job, all in all, on the war on terror. And it sounds like conservative complaints are starting to be heard.

But I’d like to point something else out. Bill Clinton moved his party decidedly to the right on policy, and the only successful candidates running for that party’s nomination are running far to Clinton’s left. The same thing could very well happen with the GOP. If George W. Bush ends his eight years in office seeming more like a liberal Republican than a conservative one (still very possible), Republicans might look for a Goldwater or a Reagan next time, just as they did after Eisenhower and Nixon, respectively. In other words, George W. Bush may be changing policy, but he may not be changing the party that much. I don’t run into a lot of people who call themselves compassionate conservatives, except as a joke.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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