Bush Has a Point: Whose Party Is It?

The intellectual capacity, or lack thereof, of George W. Bush has inspired some of the campaign season’s biggest guffaws among the pundit class, but the fact is he’s absolutely right on a basic point of American politics. The man may not be able to quote from The Federalist Papers , but on the issue of party primaries, he has history and common sense on his side.

When Mr. Bush and his surrogates complain that Democrats and independents have infiltrated the Republican Party’s nominating process, they’re dismissed as sore losers who are as out of touch as George Bush the Elder seemed to be in 1992. Sore losers they may well be, but they’re right to feel just a bit surly. After all, John McCain has been able to carry his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination into March on the strength of non-Republicans. And most observers seem to think this is a good thing. Sure they do. They’re not Republicans.

Odd though it may sound in this era of presumed entitlement-Look, I have a right to vote for John McCain, even if I’m not a

registered Republican!-it is entirely reasonable for Republicans to lament the intrusion of outsiders into their nominating process. If you spent your autumns licking envelopes for your local Republican Party, how would you feel about interlopers deciding on your party’s nominee? Some argue that parties don’t mean much anymore, that the envelope lickers are a dying breed, that open primaries are yet another sign that the irresistible force of democracy is breaking down old walls. Yeah, yeah: Let’s see what Democrats would say if Christian Coalition types were butting in on their nomination process. How quickly would we hear the phrase “dirty tricks” bandied about on the nightly political screamfests?

For all the talk about the transformation of American politics into a post-partisan, personality-driven branch of Big Entertainment, tens of millions of voters choose to register as members of the two major parties, usually because they believe in a given party’s positions and core beliefs. (Or they choose to belong to no party, because none suits them. That’s my hand you see raised.)

From those registered party members come the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, minor party officials, fund-raisers and local officials who make up the party’s rank and file. The party is a reflection of their beliefs, their involvement, even-dare one suggest it-their passion. So if Republican Party activists seem a little, oh, touchy on the subject of Democrats helping decide on their presidential nominee, well, you can’t really blame them. Whose party is it, anyway?

Last week, this charming journal printed a raft of testimonials to Mr. McCain from people who are proudly non-Republicans, most of whom wouldn’t vote for Mr. McCain if he became the Republican nominee. The Senator of Arizona may well be a more attractive figure than George W. Bush, but it ought to be up to Republicans to decide whether he is a fit representative of their party. In fact, The Observer ‘s collection of McCain endorsements would make for an extremely effective advertisement-for George W. Bush. Look at the sort of people my opponent attracts, Mr. Bush might say. People who will vote for Al Gore in November. People who probably have never voted for a Republican in their lives. What kind of crazy system would allow such people to vote in a Republican Party primary?

Fortunately for Mr. Bush, in New York party primaries remain the business of party members, and party members only. This state generally resists trends toward a more expansive democracy, which is why the state has those famously restrictive ballot access laws and outdated campaign finance restrictions. But by hanging on to the old-fashioned idea of a closed primary, the state is upholding the right of a political party to govern itself, without helpful hints from partisan enemies.

If George Bush is getting two-thirds of the Republican vote in Republican primaries, he should be the nominee by acclamation. There should be no contest. He clearly is the party’s choice. Mr. McCain is not this year’s Gary Hart, challenging the favorite son of the party establishment by mobilizing other factions within the party. He is a vehicle through which Democrats can achieve with their votes what Richard Nixon tried to achieve with the Canuck letter in 1972: a subversion of the opposing party’s internal nomination process.

Mr. McCain has every right to fight his campaign according to the rules as they’ve been written. The problem is not Mr. McCain, but the rules that have allowed him to work his undeniably fascinating and dramatic mischief.

One can admire him and yet recognize that he is not the choice of rank-and-file Republican voters. End of argument, no?