After Lyndon Johnson stroked the Civil Rights Act and acknowledged the hand-off of the South to the Republican Party, Southern Democrats found themselves in a heap of trouble. On issues like defense, entitlements and the culture wars, Southern Democrats were doomed to extinction. Most people tethered to reality would acknowledge that the national Democratic Party had grown too lefty.
Rather than go quietly in the good night, a number of Southern Democrats decided, in the mid-’80s, to gather up all the Southern states and hold one big primary. After the traditional introductory nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, Southern voters would state their case in one mega-whopper of a nomination event. By bundling together the yee-haws early on, and awarding vast sums of delegates to the one candidate in the pack who could CATCH BASS, SHOOT DOVE, AND PROFESS A RELATIONSHIP WITH A LOVING JESUS, said conservative candidate would stand a more formidable chance of winning the nomination.
Thus, in the annals of political history, did young Al Gore enter the presidential race. After so-so showings in Iowa and New Hampshire in 1988, Super Tuesday became his proving ground. The South's political order then was still firmly controlled by largely rural, white Democrats presiding in mildewed legislative corridors in Jackson, Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and so on. They were men who were thoroughly capable of winning elections. They included legendary figures like Georgia state House Speaker Tom Murphy, Alabama state House speaker Jim Clark, and last but not least, Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter, who had gotten to know these lawmakers from his time spent as speaker of the Tennessee House. McWherter spoke their language. And so it was that onto the national stage did the Mutt-and-Jeff duo of Ned and Al appear, with Ned doing the aw-shucks-love-you-buddy routine, and Al doing his best impersonation of what an old conservative might think the future of the new, national Democratic Party ought to look like. It was often painful.
Gore had been to Harvard, and McWherter was a college dropout. Yin and Yang. Nevertheless, the Bubba's turned out and Gore had a nice Super Tuesday. Now it should be noted that the inspiration that lead to Super Tuesday — producing a conservative candidate — ended up failing badly when the party instead nominated a Yankee technocrat (Michael Dukakis) who ultimately was the victim of Lee Atwater, a South Carolinian who understood the psyche of your basic working-class Southerner as well as the next guy. The culture the Democrats yearned to reproduce in a candidate wound up defeating them.
America's nomination of political candidates has long been screwy. It is like the house that gets added to, added to again, then renovated, every four years. But as crazy as it may seem, there is a legitimate argument that the two parties' nominating process is just fine. Loaded on the front-end, it falls under the control of local chieftains in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the remaining succession of states, who introduce their various regional affects to the process. This has the advantage of requiring the candidate to develop a pretty solid political repertoire that can respond to voters asking entirely different questions based on entirely different voting environments.
Another advantage to the system is that it winnows out the losers in what seems like a reasonably fair and expeditious way. When a candidate begins losing, the most immediate result is that his contributions go away. And when that happens, he is forced to exit the race. Fair enough, right?
2012 has upended that because of the Citizens United decision, allowing for unlimited contributions on behalf of candidates. No longer do candidates have to exit if they lose. With just one sugar daddy, they can stay in the race for quite some time. That is why the losers — Santorum, Gingrich and Paul — are still hanging around.
So if, as a result of Citizens United, the drip-by-drip process of one-at-a-time nominating events that we now have cannot result in a reduced field, then perhaps what we might hear soon is a call for a system of regional primaries (maybe four of them, North, South, East and West, one after the other) or even a national primary system in which the entire country would vote on the same day to select the parties' respective candidates. I think that based on how things are going for the Republicans this year, with no end in sight, and recriminations among them building daily, and the abundance of money producing yet more and more hotly contested events that probably shouldn't be taking place anyway, the party elders will resume the dialogue about scrapping the old system and doing something entirely different. Money has a way of screwing everything up, particularly in politics.