The Green Papers Commentary

and other Random Thoughts as we get ready to watch the first First-Tier Caucuses

Sunday, January 23, 2000

"The Green Papers" Staff

So now we have come to what is allegedly the first real test of the 2000 Presidential Campaign: the Iowa Caucuses in both parties (along with the little-regarded Alaska Republican Caucuses with its associated Straw Poll)- caucuses in which, as anyone who has- by now- read the material found all over this website would know, not a single delegate to either party's National Convention is to be selected. And yet the presidential contenders will find the chances for the ultimate success of their candidacies weighed by the... well, one can scarcely call them "votes"!- let's use the term "preferences"... of a very small percentage of those who identify with each of the two major parties nationwide, those who will participate in these local caucuses come the evening of Monday 24 January.

One fact, however, cannot be denied- regardless of the outcomes in Iowa (as for which I think one can safely predict they will support the positions of the current front-runners for their respective parties' Presidential Nominations- George W. Bush for the Republicans, Al Gore for the Democrats- that they are, in fact, the current front-runners for their respective parties' Presidential Nominations)- and that is this: that the rules of the nomination game still dictate that a presidential contender get a majority of the delegate votes on the floor of his party's National Convention in order to become that party's Nominee. While it is true that the major parties' National Conventions have, by now, devolved into political versions of Jerry Lewis-style Telethons (except that they tend to be four times as long!)- mainly because they no longer choose a nominee who has already clinched the presidential nomination through his reaching the "magic number" of a majority of pledged delegates at some point earlier in the pre-Convention phase of the campaign, that "magic number" is still a plateau yet to be reached at this point in the pre-Convention period of the 2000 Presidential Election. The caucuses in Iowa are not, in and of themselves, going to get any contender any closer to that "magic number"; they can only give those who come out of Iowa as having done better than expected a potential boost toward the subsequent primaries which WILL get them closer to it.

In his seminal work on the American governmental system of the late 19th century, a multi-volume study titled "The American Commonwealth" [1888], James [later Viscount] Bryce turned his attention to the National Conventions of the two major parties and how those parties went about selecting the delegates to these Conventions (in the "primaries"- which, in those days, always meant what we now call a "caucus/convention" procedure, such as that being used in Iowa) and then how these delegates themselves went about actually choosing the party's nominee. Even with the role of the Conventions in determining the nominee being greatly diminished over what it was merely a half century ago, what Lord Bryce once wrote about the types of contenders for the presidential nomination is still instructive, for the categorization of said contenders has not changed all that much since his time- despite the fact that we will almost certainly know who a major party's nominee will be well before a Convention's opening gavel come this Summer.

Lord Bryce divided the contenders for a party's nomination into three groups: "Favourites" [Bryce was British, after all- hence his spelling], "Dark Horses" and "Favourite Sons". Bryce defined a "Favourite" as "a politician well known over the Union and drawing support from all or most of its sections. He is a man who has distinguished himself... the drawback to him is that in making friends he has also made enemies". Today, we would call Bryce's "Favourite" a "front-runner" and both George W. Bush (who has distinguished himself "in the politics of some State so large that its politics are a matter of knowledge and interest to the whole nation" [again quoting Bryce]- certainly Texas qualifies for just such a definition ; Governor Bush also has the advantage of being the son of a former President- a former President of relatively recent vintage at that!) and Al Gore (his position as the incumbent Vice-President of the United States being his most distinguishing characteristic and the one most responsible for his status as a front-runner) clearly fit the definition of Bryce's "Favourite" in both its positive and negative senses.

A "Dark Horse", meanwhile, was defined by Bryce as "a person not very widely known in the country at large, but known rather for good than for evil. He has probably sat in Congress... and gained some credit among those who have dealt with him in Washington... Sometimes he is a really able man, but without the special talents that win popularity." Nowadays, we would call Bryce's "Dark Horse" simply a "Challenger" (and, perhaps, a presidential nominating system which pretty much reduces ALL challengers to front-running "favourites" to the status of what the 19th century would call a "dark horse" is something to ponder seriously and give one pause), for certainly Bill Bradley and John McCain fit both parts of Bryce's definition of a "Dark Horse": both men have sat in the Senate and gained some credit thereby but, nevertheless, do not have those "special talents" which seem to aid both Governor Bush and Vice-President Gore; McCain and Bradley are also certainly not ones who so easily "win popularity".

Finally, Bryce defined a "Favourite Son" as a presidential contender who "may not be, like the Dark Horse, little known to the nation at large, but he has not fixed its eye or filled its ear"; Bryce goes on to make the analogy of a "Favourite Son" to "a lamp whose glow fills the side chapel of a cathedral" but which then "sinks to a spark of light when carried into the nave". At the time Bryce was writing, the proverbial "favorite son" was State-based and his position as a "favorite son" was largely based on his hope in controlling his state's delegation in order to hold it for the contender for the nomination who would best aid the interests of the State or its region; in the present political climate, however, a "favorite son" is more likely to be Special Interest-based. Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes are the presidential contenders (all on the Republican side) who well fit- in different guises, to be sure- Bryce's definition of a "Favourite Son", not because they represent the interests of their home State- as would a "favorite son" of generations past- but because they are seen as representing some cause or ideological bent within the party which the front-runners and the leading challenger(s) seem- at least to those who support them- to have, at best, largely ignored or, at worst, outright abandoned. Those who manage to survive through the pre-Convention phase and, thus, limp into Philadelphia this Summer with noticeable support on the floor of the GOP Convention, even though they will certainly have no chance of winning the party's nomination, will only agree- in the traditional manner of the "favorite son" of old- to openly support the presumptive nominee at the Convention if that nominee can be induced to show at least some favor to the interests and policy positions of their respective supporters.

Bryce then went on to analyze the motives of those attending the party's Convention in their choice of a presidential nominee; in modern practice, these have now become the motives of the pre-Convention voter in a presidential primary election or at a first-tier caucus. "There is the wish to carry a particular aspirant", Bryce wrote. "There is the wish to defeat a particular aspirant, a wish sometimes stronger than any predilection... There is the wish to find the man who, be he good or bad, friend or foe, will give the party its best chance of victory. These motives cross one another, get mixed, vary in relative strength..." It is precisely these mixed motives as outlined by Lord Bryce but now applied by the electorate itself to those fitting the modern version of Bryce's categorization of presidential contenders which we will now see played out over the coming weeks and months, beginning with Iowa's caucuses; however, the contenders themselves will still have to keep at least one eye on the "magic numbers" 2168.5 (for the Democrats) and 1034 (for the GOP). This much has not changed over more than a century!

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