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The RNC and DNC have time to prevent an electoral disaster in 2024

The Hill logo The Hill 7/5/2022 Joseph Bosco, Opinion Contributor
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The 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and their aftermath should have been warning shots to the Republican and Democratic parties on the fragility of our electoral system and the need for significant reforms.

In both elections, the parties put up deeply flawed candidates who, once again, presented Americans with a choice of “the lesser of two evils.” The inevitable result was a bitterly divided and disillusioned public, half of which was convinced election chicanery or foreign interference determined the outcome in each case. If things go horribly wrong in 2024, U.S. democracy itself will be placed in the balance. It should not be left to one man or woman to stand in the breach, as Vice President Mike Pence heroically did in January 2021.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) and Democratic National Committee (DNC), as designated party gatekeepers, are the two entities capable of influencing the elevation of individuals to the most important position in the world. They bear the political and moral responsibility to collaborate on reducing the danger to the American system of government.

Without congressional or other governmental action, they can agree on two important measures to reduce the risk of a seriously impaired candidate from either party rising to the presidency.

First and foremost, the RNC and DNC should require that individuals vying for their respective party’s presidential or vice presidential nomination must be subject to the same background check mandated for all other employees working in sensitive federal government positions, as well as for government contractors. The examination process is designed to reveal any disqualifying criminal record, financial or business improprieties, transactional or relationship conflicts, or foreign influence. The candidates’ physical and mental health records and their last 10 years of tax returns should be included in the investigation.

The mere prospect of such a thorough vetting would deter many potential bad actors or otherwise unfit persons from submitting themselves to the higher level of scrutiny. That would make for a smaller, more credible field of candidates and a less encumbered nomination process.  

We should have learned lessons from relatively recent history. In 1972, George McGovern’s vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, was forced to withdraw after revelation of his multiple hospitalizations and electroshock treatments for serious depression. He had served competently as a Missouri senator, but the possibility of his finger on the “nuclear button” abruptly ended his candidacy.

Donald Trump’s shady business practices and character flaws were well exposed in 2016, but with the reporting coming primarily from a highly partisan press, it was easy for a sizable segment of the population to accept his dismissal of the charges as biased reporting and “fake news.” This was especially true after Trump secured the GOP nomination despite his questionable loyalty to the party. By then, the only political alternative was the widely distrusted team of Hillary and Bill Clinton, who were not known for their records of impeccable ethics in government positions.

The second major reform for 2024 would address the problem of fringe or decidedly minority candidates with a small but devoted constituency winning a plurality of the vote in a crowded field. That was precisely how Trump consistently won with a string of plurality victories in the 2016 Republican primaries and how Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his committed following triumphed in the early Democratic races in 2020 against Joe Biden’s then-floundering campaign.  It was only when Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) stepped in to halt the momentum of Sanders, whom he saw as a likely general election loser, that Biden’s candidacy was resuscitated. 

The solution to the danger of minority zealots prevailing against divided mainstream opposition in both parties would be for the RNC and DNC to organize a series of randomly-selected weekly regional primaries — Midwest, Northeast, West Coast, etc. — starting the first week in February and ending by June 15. The parties could then conduct runoff votes for their respective top two delegate winners around July 15.

Such a process would significantly increase the likelihood of a choice in November between two mainstream candidates, one from each major party, who together reflect the majority views of the American people. It would make for a more moderate and civil campaign conversation, hopefully reducing the country’s poisonous political tensions, or at least not further exacerbating them.

Neither of these reforms would prevent third-party or independent candidates from competing in the election and skewing the result by taking votes from one of the major candidates. Many believe that Ross Perot cost President George H.W. Bush reelection in 1992 and Ralph Nader undermined Al Gore’s chances in 2000.  

Trump threatened to do the same to the GOP nominee in 2016 if the party nominated anyone other than him. Last year, his typical self-absorbed approach to politics cost Republicans two Georgia seats and control of the Senate. Given his contempt for the party and any Republicans who do not pledge slavish fealty to him, Trump may well threaten to launch a third-party bid in 2024 if he is denied the nomination — unless he is disqualified from holding federal office by a criminal conviction or by congressional action. 

Either of these proposals would increase the likelihood of Trump being denied the GOP nomination and launching a spoiler run, but the country cannot be constrained from making long overdue electoral changes because of the intimidation tactics of one discredited former president.

Democrats may disdain such reforms that likely would foreclose a Trump nomination, preferring to run against him, especially after the latest devastating revelations of his post-election behavior.  But such a cynical strategy would be a gamble endangering American democracy every bit as much as those who still pledge their loyalty to the man who has proved so disloyal to them, to the Republican Party, and to our constitutional system. 

At some point, both Democrats and Republicans must put patriotism ahead of partisanship — especially when standard-bearers fall short on loyalty to both party and country.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

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