"Sununu, Weicker, and Wilder" might sound like the name of a new law firm. Instead, the three are former governors: John Sununu (R-N.H.), Lowell Weicker (Ind.-Conn.), and L. Douglas Wilder (D-Virginia). The trio appeared at the University of Virginia on April 16 in a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Politics, under the title "The Presidency Reconsidered: should we change how we nominate and elect our chief executives?” According to the news release distributed before the event:
Each of the 21st Century's presidential elections has seen many constitutional issues come to the forefront of public consciousness. Some have suggested that the process of being nominated by the parties is in need of review. Should we attempt to alter this process by establishing regional primaries or some other system, or are we better served leaving the process to the discretion of each individual state? What is the role of the superdelegates, and does this process work as it was intended? Should anything be done to prioritize the outcome of the popular vote in the nomination process and/or the general election? Are there changes that might help build greater confidence in our system of elections for more Americans? Should we continue to disallow non-native born citizens from running for president? These topics and more will be debated at The Presidency Reconsidered.I attended the event, invited in my capacity as a blogger, but also as a correspondent for The Metro Herald in Alexandria. I was there with video camera in hand, which makes it possible for me to transcribe the entire recording (a daunting task, which I did not attempt in toto) and thus permits me to use quotations that can be checked for accuracy rather than rely on scribbled notes.
I have already posted the entire 75-minute event to YouTube, and the video segments appear below. I also prepared an article for submission to The Metro Herald, which (with slight variations for the blog format) follows:
Governors Discuss Presidential Politics at the University of Virginia
Special to The Metro Herald
(Charlottesville, April 16) --- Three former governors – one Democrat, one Republican, and one independent – spoke at a forum sponsored by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on April 16, addressing the question, “Should we change how we nominate and elect our chief executive?”
Moderated by UVA professor and political pundit Larry Sabato, the forum was attended by more than 450 people, who came to hear former White House chief of staff John Sununu (who earlier was Republican governor of New Hampshire), former Republican Senator Lowell Weicker (who later was an independent governor of Connecticut), and current Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder (who served as Democratic governor of Virginia from 1989 to 1993). Weicker and Wilder were also briefly presidential candidates themselves, in 1980 and 1992, respectively.
To initiate the discussion, Sabato asked the three panelists to predict who will be the Democratic presidential nominee and who will win the general election.
Sununu replied: “Frankly, I don’t care who wins the Democratic nomination, and I think the Democrats are going to be very surprised that this is not a Democratic year, that they have created a sufficient level of chaos that, I think, John McCain will be the next president.”
Speaking as a Democrat, Wilder said, “Barack Obama will be the nominee of the party and I will say that that if he were not the nominee of the party, John McCain would not win anyway.” He admonished, however, that “the malaise that we see spilling over in so many ways, is such that [the general election] is for the Democrats to lose.” Still, he concluded, “the nominating contest is pretty much over. I will not be one to say that it should end now … but I think that Barack Obama will be eventually proclaimed the nominee of the Democratic party.”
To break the tie, Weicker offered a pithy answer: “Barack Obama, Barack Obama.”
With that preliminary question out of the way, Sabato moved into the central question of the evening: Is the presidential nominating process broken and, if so, how can it be fixed?
Governor Sununu gave a lengthy but cohesive response, which focused on his own experience – and admitted bias – as the former New Hampshire chief executive and presidential campaign activist.
“I think people don’t understand that the nominating process,” Sununu said, “the primary process really should demand of our citizens an equal commitment to the election process as the general election.”
New Hampshire, he said, is different from the rest of the country in that it has a 400-member state legislature, and most taxes are imposed (and raised) at the local level, “so that every board of selectman, every school board, is one that can affect your pocketbook.” Moreover, New Hampshire has elections every two years, which means that “every two years, three or four thousand people are elected.” That, in turn, means that “six or eight thousand [people] run – there’s a winner and a loser.” Consequently, he noted, in a state of a million residents “it means that, over a lifetime, virtually you, your spouse, or one of your neighbors has run for office.” Responding to audience chuckles, Sununu emphasized: “That’s not an exaggeration; people tithe their time in the volunteer offices of the community. It is tremendously involving. That’s why people love their politics.”
This level of involvement in local politics affects how New Hampshire voters approach the presidential primary elections. The primary process in that state, Sununu said, “isn’t just … going to cast your vote on election day. It is a commitment by the citizens to be part of the process. They attend the coffees and the events not only of their own candidate but of the opposition, and sometimes they change their minds in the process.”
During the 2008 election, Sununu pointed out proudly, “over 75 percent of the New Hampshire electorate turned out for the primary. That’s commitment.”
In contrast, other states seeking to improve their position in the process by moving their primaries to an earlier date are missing the point of why New Hampshire has become so important in the process.
“I look at other states scrambling to change the date and [saying] ‘oh, we want to be early,” Sununu said. “But you look at the returns that most of them get – 10, 12, 13 percent – they don’t understand that it’s more than just changing the date.”
He added that he is “very partial to New Hampshire, but I suggest to you that if you want to replace New Hampshire, you ought to replace it with at least an equivalent state – someplace in which a candidate can come in without too much money and begin to get some political traction on the national scene, someone who can talk face-to-face with citizens who have serious questions and who will communicate the concerns that they have.” In other words, “replace it with a state where you are going to get a real turnout and you are reflecting the commitment of citizens to the process.”
Sununu did acknowledge that “Iowa has a very similar process. They have the caucus process that takes place earlier. But let me remind you: Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.”
With regard to the rest of the process, Sununu pointed to this year’s elongated Democratic primary season and suggested, with Pennsylvania and other states still to vote and have an impact on the final decision, “maybe it’s good to be last.”
“The point is,” Sununu said, “people have to understand that every component in the process is significant. Sometimes you clean out the chaff early, sometimes you clean out the second layer in the next round of primaries, sometimes you are there for sorting out between the last two.”
In terms of changing things, Sununu ended his response by saying that “the best way to handle it is to modify some of the crazy rules that one of the parties adopted, but don’t make dramatic changes. Let the struggle go on, let the states think that they have expectations of being very influential and change their dates for a while, and they will discover that an orderly process is best for everyone and I think you’ll see people sort down to a calendar that makes some sense. It doesn’t mean it will happen in the next cycle, but I suspect that within one or two cycles, sanity will return to the system.”
Taking his turn to answer the question, Governor Weicker had one succinct point to make. Noting that he had supported the move away from “brokered conventions” toward a more participatory primary process, he questioned the effect of the change.
“What’s been the effect?,” he asked, replying without a pause: “Absolutely obscene quantities of money spent on this process. So I have to question whether this has been a good thing.” He expressed some hope that “ ‘there might be some middle ground between the brokered convention and the primary,” but he was unsure about what form it might take. “Rather than throwing it open as it is now, you have got to do away with the hundreds of millions being spent on the process.” Part of this problem, he said, “is because the time period is so long. I would hope the middle ground can be found [and] that we alter the present system, because money is destroying the process.” (Weicker would return to this theme later in the discussion.)
Wilder began with an anecdote about his own experience as a Democratic presidential candidate. He said that the biggest ovation he ever received at a joint session of the General Assembly was when he began his State of the Commonwealth address by saying he was “no longer a candidate” for his party’s nomination. Throwing up his arms and smiling, he imitated the General Assembly members: “Hurray!”
That brief experience in the field, however, gave him some material to reflect upon. “I learned a great deal by going to Iowa and going to New Hampshire,” he said and, agreeing with Governor Sununu, added: “There has to be a commitment.”
Following up on Sununu’s comments, Wilder said: “I will say this about the people in New Hampshire, as well as Iowa: they are attuned to the issues. You go to those states, you’re going to have to talk to them not one time, not two times, nor seven times. They’re going to say, ‘when are you coming back to see me?’ After six times, ‘when are you coming to my house? When are we going to have coffee? When are we going to have a real sit-down discussion? I want to learn more about you.’” That measure of interest, he said, is “being lost around the country, in terms of that direct relationship with the candidates.”
Agreeing with Governor Weicker, Wilder also decried the influence of money in politics. “The unfortunate thing is,” he said, “when you have these early, front-loaded primaries, the media follows, and once the media follows, the money follows the media. It’s very difficult for a candidate to get any traction at all if the media’s not there.”
As a result, he continued, “It is obscene the amount of money that is being spent. You can’t imagine: running for office today, even at local levels, costs a ton of money … millions and millions of dollars.” In any campaign, he said, “You’ve got to have somebody for everything. You’ve got to have advance people … you’ve got to have position papers, you’ve got to have stylists, you’ve got to have people who tell you what you think and what you say and who you are.”
Wilder added ruefully: “By the time you go to measure it all, you see that politics is now a business, with very little about representing the will of the people, very little about what the [Founders] had in mind when they started to say we’re going to elect the president.” He concluded, therefore, that “something desperately has to change.”
Before this first round of questioning ended, Governor Sununu asked the moderator for a chance to respond to some of what had been said by his fellow panelists.
He noted that he agreed “150 percent with Governor Weicker and Governor Wilder on the impact of money in politics. It is something I don’t think any of us like.”
He added, however, that “having said that, I think all of the recent efforts to try to fix it have only made it worse,” explaining: “It is one of these constitutional rights -- a First Amendment right -- that people try and build all kinds of legal fences around, and [they] don’t realize that whatever they do, under the Constitution, people are going to have the right to do something else with their money and participate in the process.”
Sununu presented an alternative: “I just hope we stop focusing on trying to write laws that deal with the money issue, and create an attitude in America and an understanding in America about what really ought to be heard from candidates and trying to make our decisions independent of that.”
He concluded: “I know it is almost impossible for that wish to come true, but I can tell you this: It is more impossible for the wish that a piece of legislation will change the participation of money in politics. That is real,” he said, and “if we spend all our time looking at that we’re not going to be looking at other things that could make an impact on the quality of the electoral process.”
Governor Weicker then clarified his stance on how best to change the role of money in politics. He explained that he had recently joined the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging a Connecticut law that provides public campaign financing for candidates running for the state legislature in that state.
He joined the challenge because of the adverse impact on third-party and independent candidates under the new law. Weicker explained:
“The new law creates public financing, which goes very liberally to either the Republican or the Democratic candidate. If you happen to be an independent, you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get any of that public financing. You’ve got to get an enormous amount of signatures, somewhere around one hundred to two hundred thousand signatures to even be eligible.”
Continuing, Weicker said, “before you start writing any laws as to how to fix politics in the United States, if we would allow competition in politics as we insist on having in our economics, believe me, you’ll clean up a lot of the mess. But right now you’ve got a duopoly between the Republicans and Democrats, and the independents are being excluded.”
In his own state, Weicker concluded, the legislature responded to people’s desire for campaign finance reform with a law that “was tilted in one direction, to legislate Republicans and Democrats into permanency.”
This thoughtful set of responses to Professor Sabato’s first substantive question lasted only about 15 minutes, with another hour to go in the discussion. Other questions addressed whether regional primaries would be an improvement over the current system; whether primaries are superior to caucuses; whether the parties – especially the Democrats – should continue or eliminate the “Superdelegates”; the role of the Electoral College and whether it is still relevant today; plus there were a variety of questions posed by members of the audience, including several high school and college students in attendance.
Those interested in seeing the entire panel discussion featuring John Sununu, Lowell, Weicker, and Doug Wilder can view it below.
UVA Today, an internal publication of the University, also has a report on this Center for Politics event.