Smoke-filled rooms beat robocalls

Well, the votes are in; the millions spent on TV ads and the candidates have moved on. But when you survey the results of the Michigan Republican primary election, all I can say is:

“Bring back the smoke-filled room!”

That’s not because of the way things turned out. What bothers me are all the evils that go along with the primary election process.

I wasn’t surprised that Mitt Romney squeaked out a win over Rick Santorum. After all, his father, George Romney, was elected governor here three times in a row, and old-timers like me still remember him with some affection.

In some of his TV ads, Mitt made no bones about his own affection for his native state. He talked fondly about growing up in Michigan and saying the election was “personal.” During one speech, he even opined that our trees were “about the right height.”

In fact, you might have expected that he would have won easily. But the outcome was hardly a convincing victory for Romney, with all he had going for him here. He picked up endorsements from virtually the entire Republican hierarchy, from Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on down. Romney started the campaign with a double-digit lead, only to quickly fall behind before recovering. In the end, he won by less than half the margin he piled up four years ago over John McCain.

Put another way, about three in every five Michigan primary voters rejected their native son, as did two-thirds of the state’s counties. That may be in part because of the constant  barrage of anti-Romney ads launched by the Santorum camp.

Not exactly the best way to help position the ticket for November! Yet picking nominees via primary elections is now the “democratic” norm, both in Michigan and nationally.

That’s too bad.

Among the many things that troubled me this time were the weight accorded a few ultra-rich donors and the skewing of the entire campaign toward a small, but intense, base of very conservative activists. Worst of all were the ads. TV screens throughout the state were clogged with political ads, at once both sanctimonious and harsh, from the candidates. I found it hard to tell the difference between the spots paid for by the Romney and Santorum campaigns themselves and those of their accompanying “super PACs,” funded by multi-millionaires and sanitized as “independent” of the actual campaigns by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Michigan Truth Squad, a fact-checking program of the Center for Michigan, assigned “foul” or “technical foul” calls to a majority of the ads it reviewed from both campaigns for outright misstatements, unsubstantiated inferences and simple personal innuendo this primary season.

The robocalls that infested so many homes around the dinner hour represented their own form of entrapment as well.

Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed our democracy was “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Turns out these days it’s become largely the product of the millionaires, bought by the millionaires and (I fear) conducted for the interests of the millionaires.

And because the target audience in the Michigan primary was the right wing of the GOP, the dominant campaign rhetoric was mainly shameless pandering to hard-right ideology. The main effect primary elections have on our political institutions is to let activists on the fringe determine the kinds of candidates normal people are supposed to vote for in general elections.

That’s a very odd way to manage a political system.

When I was a (very) young man, I was allowed to sit (silently) in the “midnight caucus” at Democratic Party state conventions. That was the device at which party bosses discussed the merits and demerits of the candidates for office and issued “leadership recommendations” to the party faithful.

Although only a minority of party bosses actually smoked cigars, this was our equivalent of the smoke-filled room of legend.

What strikes me about those meetings is how knowing and probing the discussions were. The bosses knew all the candidates well, their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Some might be womanizers, others hard drinkers. Some had deservedly distinguished records. Others were frauds.

However, whatever their morals, the bosses knew their own continued power depended on picking candidates who were not only competent to fill an office, but also capable of standing up to the scrutiny of a campaign without embarrassing themselves or their party.

The boys in the back room had a self-interest in picking winners. The scrutiny of the smoke-filled room was much, much harsher and more candid than all the glitzy TV ads and robocalls.

Sadly, today, in the name of “democracy,” we have changed the rules. We now have primary elections conducted primarily to pander to the ideologues amongst us. These elections are for the most part paid for by unelected, unrepresentative wealthy individuals and interest groups. And the image-mongering that has substituted for the gimlet-eyed judgment of professional party bosses often winds up picking the least capable and least qualified among the candidates.

Don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to risk the consequences of a little second-hand smoke if we could just bring back a system for picking candidates that made sense. 
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Thu, 03/01/2012 - 8:46am
It is disappointing that Mr. Power can only reason for wanting a change to the "smoke-filled room" is his lament for the past rather than have a reason for the future. My view is that the current process is driven more by personality/personal presentation. The candidate are driven by the current process to appeal to the most local of issue een when they are running for office that has natioinal impact. It seems to have become that the Parties are simply a vehicle the candidate selects (albeit early in their career) that they can best cajole into nominating them. I would like to see more of the candidate being more about the party and a set of goals they will work toward if elected. It would seem that a political party shold be based on certain principles and expectations those principles would be desined to achieve. Let's call it a party platform. Once the Party had etablished that then they would seek canidates (for all offices) that would be best able to align with it and work to achieve those goals. Mr. Power's only lamnet seems to be about the means used for election and has no consideration about the purpose of the nomination process. Just as the current process favors certain types of candidates and even a whole election industry, maybe the laments for th past are simply a convienence of writers such as Mr. Powers. My concern is that the current process has diminished the importance of party and measurable goals (using an old word, 'platform') and is more about 'flash'. As I recall much of the media were clamoring for the primary process and condemning the "smoke filled room" when the transition was made. I wonder hat Mr. Power's views were at the time and if he was looking at the process and its fuunction.
Mike R
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 11:23am
I'm sorry, but I cannot figure out what Duane is trying to say. He repeatedly takes Phil to task for yearning wistfully for the "smoke filled room" (a metaphor, not to be taken literally), yet also decries the current system in favor of a "party platform" system that would attract only candidates who support the pre-determined platform and could advance it. Isn't that pretty much exactly what Phil is saying? We clearly need to return (or move forward) to a more orderly, rational, systematic way of selecting candidates on merit, electability, and character, rather than on money, money, personality, money, appeal to extremists, and money. And money. I personally don't see the merit in allowing party bosses to pick candidates, or to determine the platform and then throwing it open to a mystical process whereby the "best" candidates somehow emerge victorious. But the point remains: almost anything has to be better than the current voyeuristic mudwrestling match to determine who is the wealthiest extremist.
Fri, 03/02/2012 - 1:07am
Mr. Power laments for time past but not for a reason other than he doesn't like the current spending on campaigns. The courts have already ruled current campaigning is legal. If he really wanted change he would identify some process reasons that would be gained by the change, not some simply fear of money (as if people's votes were actually being bought). Mt point if we wanted the campaign to change a reason would be Party selection of candidates based on their willingness to support specific Party platform. If an elected politician didn't support it they would replace the politicain nexy primary. My disappointment is not with Mr Powers, but with the lack of thoughfulness and interest in ideas beyond his person preferences that are considered in the commentary. They are written without consideration of what maybe concerns of those who don't fall inline with his perspective, his are the only ideas. As is this case money is 'bad' and the old way is 'good'. As a simple example, in the current system there is the capacity for crossover voting, Democrats, and even Independents, could have voted for a Republican thus not truly allowing there to be a Republican vote on theit nominee. As best I can tell Mr. Power never considers this as a flaw he could only see money. That is a disappointment, a person that has a platform that money can't buy and this commentary can't see passed a very narrow perspective. For those that have actually had to bring people together to get something changed, opening up to their ideas and giving them fair consideration is critical in today's society. It is only those that aren't accountable for change that have the luxury of being closed miinded. I read Mr. Power's commentaries as part of trying to see what others think, but I challenge what is said in the hopes of offering a different persective. I do this in a challenging way, without personal attack, to evoke emotion and hopefully symulate consideration of an alternative point of view. To ignore a weak presentation, not comment, is to give tacid approval and encouragement to it.
Frank Kalinski
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 9:46am
"Among the many things that troubled me this time were the weight accorded a few ultra-rich donors and the skewing of the entire campaign toward a small, but intense, base of very conservative activists" Your comment above leads me to think that one person (or a small group) with a lot of money has a "bigger" vote than mine. Isn't this an unconstitutional violation of the "one-person-one-vote" principle? The "Equal Protection Clause"? The "Civil Rights Act"? The "Voting Rights Act"? Elections now seem to be about pay to play. For the common citizen the cost to run even a small local election campaign is a huge barrier and effectively a "Denial of Access" Just look at the $10,000 dollar contribution that Bob Ficano made to Wayne County Commissioner Joan Gebhardt and now she is the Chair of the Ethics Task Force! My Question: Do you think that in order to be compliant with the Constitution we must have some sort of a publicly funded elections process? Running a campaign is not any more or less than an commercial advertising campaign like Little Caesar's Pizza or Proctor & Gamble selling Tide Laundry detergent.
Fri, 03/02/2012 - 1:12am
When you vote does what the ads $10,000 buys change your vote? If not, then why should you care? Or is it that you don't believe other voters are as smart as you? As for me I think that the campaigns and nomimations are at least as important as a box of Tide and the people running should be able to advertise themselves at least as much, and should have at least the same tools available to them.
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 11:39am
The sad part of this whole deal is that this primary cost Michigan taxpayers $10 million when a Republican caucus or Michigan Republican Convention could have decided this at no cost to taxpayers. And, to make matters worse, Michigan Republicans will only take half their delegates to the Republican National Convention because they violated national rules by holding the election this early.
Gene Markel
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 12:48pm
"Let us strive to seek the best in our fellow man and work to bring a spirit of good will toward all.I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to trial by strength, and bid to defiance to laws of our country."  Thomas Jefferson. Would Jefferson be of the same mind set today?  I don't know.  It is a different time and place but the circumstances have the same spin.  Today the holders of wealth and power hide behind 527 government approved non-profits like "Americans for Tax Reform"  and "Americans for Prosperity".  The corporations use the lobbying power of associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to promulgate their agenda.  What is left for the citizen who holds the vote?  A media fire storm of thirty second vitriolic sound bites with questionable content generated by wealth, power and associations.  Cable television and the Internet with its social media are changing the face of propaganda.  It is becoming more important for the great unwashed, as we are called by wealth and power, to be able to sort fact from fiction and use the vote to find truth, justice and the American way.
Thomas W. Donnelly
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 1:36pm
As a Democrat, I was embarassed for the Republican Party as their top candidates spent huge amount of money vilifying each other.This activity brought no new ideas on how to solve our nation's needs. The late President Reagan spoke often of Republicans not bad-mouthing other Republicans. I was very fond of George Romney as our governor. I really enjoyed the William Milliken years in office.I have always respected Bob Dole for his character, his bravery in war and service to the government. I truly believe that there are good Republicans out there: sadly, none are currently running for President. The current gridlock in Washington is in large part an effort to cripple President Obama's success in office. The nation's critical needs are not being addressed and there are no solutions in sight. Bring back responsible Republicans to balance our multi-party system and to allow the country to move forward in progress.
Brent Larson
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 5:15pm
We all seem to be unhappy with the way that our election campaign cycles are happening. I think there are are a few ideas within the watercooler dialogue that would take a good measure of the money, the fatigue, and maybe even the frustration about the process down a few notches. First, the idea is surfacing that no one should be able to donate money to assist a candidate for a race in which the donor cannot vote. SuperPACs from far away influencing Michiganders? Gone. You're not from around here? Then why are you in the conversation? Secondly, let's look seriously at those places where the campaign communications timeframe is severely limited, resulting in less time to get robocalls and endure ads, and less time to grumble about how long someone is running. Third, fair funding. If you want to donate to the election process, fine. Then the donations are divided up in a rational manner to the candidates who qualify to be on the ballot. Free speech kept to speech. Talk all you want. Let money be treated differently.