1980s >> 1984 >> no-957-may-1984

Making of a Candidate

President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) is widely credited with having democratised American politics. Reforms initiated about this time led to party conventions taking over as the vehicle for the selection of presidential candidates. Each state sends delegates, mostly pledged to vote for a particular candidate although some are uncommitted. In fact this was not as successful as had been hoped. Control of state delegates fell into the hands of party bosses, the most notorious of whom were those who ran Tammany Hall, the headquarters of the Democrats in New York. This put into a key position another class of professional politicians who expected and received patronage from political hopefuls whose path to power they smoothed. A major reason for the advance of the primary system was that it struck a blow at these state bosses.

The primary system varies from state to state, with a number still mandating their delegates through a party caucus. Others hold closed primaries where the voter is required to register as a member of the party before voting. Some have open primaries where the voter selects the primary ballot for and then can choose candidates from that list only. In a few, however, the names of all candidates from all parties are printed on the ballot and the voter can cross party lines. This gives the process the trappings of democracy. However the graft, corruption and scandals of the heyday of the party bosses are still remembered.

Very little has been heard this year of Republican primaries, as Ronald Reagan has finally decided to stand for re-election. Not since 1912, when William Howard Taft dispensed patronage ad lib to beat off a challenge from Theodore Roosevelt, only to be beaten out of sight when Roosevelt stood as a third party candidate, has an incumbent president had any real difficulty in securing the nomination of his party. While recent opinion polls have shown Gary Hart running ahead of Reagan, these are still early days. Comparison with the British election last June shows what a difficult task the Democratic hopefuls face this year. It has even been suggested that this is the reason that Edward Kennedy has opted out this time. While the upturn in the American economy is extremely modest it is a weapon that Reagan will use for all he is worth. Although in earlier times relative unknowns arriving at the convention with little support sometimes were chosen as compromise candidates when deadlock between the main contenders could not be resolved, this again hasn’t happened for some time. Now that they no longer follow an isolationist policy, American capitalists are much more concerned with their image abroad. They do not want a repeat of the Teapot Dome scandal which finished Warren Gamaliel Harding, the last of the old-style compromise candidates to reach the White House. Their recent “bad luck” with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew is still fresh in their memory.

The Democrats’ choice to face the president in November thus appears to boil down to three, one of whom is already looking like an outsider. He is the demagogue Jesse Jackson, who draws attention to the disadvantages which negro workers suffer even in comparison with their oppressed white fellow wage slaves. Jackson claims that the election of a black president can fundamentally alter this situation. This is dangerous nonsense. The special problems of the negroes arise from their being an easily distinguished minority within the oppressed class of the capitalist system. Ignorant workers pick on them as scapegoats for the evils they experience which are in fact an integral part of the system itself. Jackson in directing his appeal to such a degree to negro prejudices, however understandable these may be, risks inflaming these passions, thus doing the class a considerable disservice. The votes he has collected thus far have come almost entirely from black areas and his appeal seems too narrow to give him a real chance. He might just acquire some bargaining power if it is a close call in the San Francisco convention this summer.

Walter Mondale is the candidate most favoured by party workers and those city bosses still with influence, such as those who control the famous Cook County in Chicago. This in itself is no guarantee of selection. The darlings of the faithful are not necessarily the best winners of uncommitted votes. One of the reasons for the existence of the more open type of primary is to gain some indication of the winning potential of the candidates. The system is not fool proof in this respect, as was shown by the candidacy of the backwoodsman Barry Goldwater for the Republicans in 1964. However it would be incorrect to class Mondale as the Democrats’ 1984 equivalent of Goldwater. Mondale’s association with the Carter administration has led to insinuations that he is a “yesterday’s man”, and he has made no real attempt to dissociate himself from the former president. While the Democrats have never claimed to be a socialist party, since the era of Franklin Roosevelt they have performed many of the functions the Labour Party carries out in Britain. Like Labour, the Democratic Party has relied to a large extent for its vote on the less well off sections of the working class, and most American cities vote Democrat just as they usually vote Labour here. Mondale realises the need to hold on to this traditional support. As The Times reports (22 March 1984):

    “Mr Mondale won the Illinois primary the old fashioned way by piling up a big margin in white working class areas of Chicago, and then performing better than expected in the suburbs and down state. He also won a majority of the Hispanic vote and held on to those blacks who were not mesmerized by Mr Jackson’s vision of a ‘rainbow coalition’.”

Mondale has also widespread support inside the trade unions. It is of little importance whether in achieving this working class support he has acted as a conscious deceiver or as an honest but rather ignorant individual. Either way it is the stuff of which presidents are made.

Gary Hart burst onto the scene a few weeks ago, apparently from nowhere, promising sweeping new’ deals both inside the Democratic Party and in the USA at large. When this “new” approach is examined much of the cosmetic glitter fades. The Times (10 March 1984) had a feature article on “What Makes The Maverick Hart Tick”. In this we read:

       “Arguing that “the pragmatism of the new deal has become doctrine”. Mr Hart says the US must find a way to move from the economy of the past to the economy of the future, an economy not only expanding but which can meet the challenges of increased international competition and rapid technological change.

      He is an advocate of an “industrial policy” in which the Government would take the lead in bringing business and labour together to work out the nation’s industrial strategy.”

and later:

       “He believes that the burgeoning cost of social entitlement programmes, such as Medicare and Medicaid, must be restrained, not simply through cuts but by putting more emphasis on preventive medicine and home care.

       On most economic issues Mr Hart has tried to emphasize the need to examine how government money is spent rather than how much. He believes the economic debate between Republicans and Democrats has become bogged down between those who favour fiscal generosity and those on the side of frugality.”

This is just a sample of what Professor Samuel Beer of Harvard calls Hart’s “ideological mishmash”. This is the confused groping of the politically ignorant, distinguished only by the inevitable concern for capitalism’s welfare. Hart fails to distinguish the old from the new in politics. Indeed we have now reached the stage when there are no new options for capitalism to try, only regurgitations of old, and Hart scarcely seems the best equipped to find the least sickly mixture. No wonder Hart’s star is now emitting a much dimmer light.

Nevertheless, barring real surprises, either Hart or Mondale will win through to oppose Reagan in the autumn. Certainly, Reagan is far from invincible. His track record on welfare, the US term for social services, is callous even by capitalist standards. The soup kitchen and the church mission, both of which many though had gone for good, have made a big comeback in the wake of the cuts imposed by the Reagan government. But could the Democrats take advantage of this? It would scarcely suffice merely to promise redress, as everyone knows that increased “public expenditure” (actually taxation on the capitalists) would be required. In the present climate few dare to advocate this. Still fewer will advocate a serious reduction in the US arms arsenal. No wonder voting in American elections is so low, particularly in deprived inner city areas. While many have fallen prey to apathy and despair a sizeable number are through with voting for capitalist parties, period.

E. C. Edge

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