Sometimes, when we’re trying to look ahead, we must first look back. Just over a century ago, Progressive reformers wrested control of nominations for high elective office away from the party bosses — in their literally “smoke-filled rooms” — and vested it in the people, who would choose candidates through primary elections.

In a bold stroke, reformers swept away the system that had corrupted Congress throughout the post-Civil War period and largely prevented the “voice of the people” from being heard through the two-party system.

In Maine, primary elections came, along with the initiative-and-referendum system we use so often today, as part of a bipartisan package in 1911, when Democrats briefly had majorities in the Legislature. Since this also coincided with the federal constitutional amendment providing direct election of U.S. senators, voters suddenly had a lot of choices to make.

No one would claim that party primaries revolutionized the system, but collectively, the progressive reforms made it possible to elect presidents and governors more directly accountable to the people — and produced at least one great president, Franklin Roosevelt, when the nation needed one most.

All that does seem like ancient history now. But the only history truly ancient is that which we don’t remember, or try to make use of. With Tuesday’s presidential primary coming right up, this is as good as time as any to get back to basics.

Primary elections, once a reform with near-universal voter approval, have gradually been degraded, if not corrupted — symbolized by the singular term “primary” rather than “primary election,” which suggests more to come.


Rather than seeing primaries as the Final Four, or the playoffs leading to the Super Bowl, we too often treat them as an inconvenient impediment to getting to November, where the real action is. At worst, they’re punishment for an incumbent who doesn’t “vote right,” or “support the president,” and now will be “primaried.”

It’s on a par with our other contemporary habits showing distrust and even contempt for the voters, such as “flipping” legislative chambers, or using candidate bankrolls as a measure of their worth.

The major parties’ professional arms in Washington spend a great deal of time and trouble — and money — trying to anoint candidates in congressional races; the Democratic Party is an especially serious offender.

This is all nonsense, but is widely believed, and at least grudgingly accepted. Until the 1990s, most major party candidates had a primary challenger, including incumbent presidents, but it’s been downhill all the way since, accompanied by mounting voter frustration.

We complain about the lack of choices, yet ignore or denigrate the very process we invented to help make those choices.

The last great presidential primary was among Republicans, in 1980. In that campaign, GOP voters had a range of plausible choices, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, former Senate Leader Howard Baker, former Congressman George H.W. Bush, Rep. John Anderson ­— and the eventual winner, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.


Reagan did pull ahead, but Bush established an early lead, and won six primaries. Anderson, also with substantial votes, withdrew and ran as an independent. There was no question Reagan freely and fairly won the competition, and — perhaps not coincidentally — he’s also the last president to have achieved success both as a political leader and head of state, the two crucial roles.

Bush also did well, parlaying his 1980 campaign into his 1988 nomination, becoming the first sitting vice president to be elected president in 152 years.

Compare the mayhem in the Democratic Party that attended the nomination of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016. To some, it was Sanders’ insurgent rhetoric that was the problem, but the real issue was Clinton’s failure to do anything to incorporate Sanders’ clearly popular ideas into her campaign.

That split — which persists into 2020 — was what, as much as anything, made Donald Trump president. It won’t be healed by endlessly speculating (when only four states have voted) on who can win in November, and why voters should abandon their current choice.

Democrats had, at various points, two dozen candidates to choose from, and still have nearly a dozen. If you can’t find someone to vote for among this remarkable range of talent, you’re not trying very hard.

Primary elections work, if we eliminate distractions and use them properly. In Maine’s March 3 primaries, vote for the candidate who you think can best represent you and your values.

No one, especially this year, can predict the future. Eventually, a nominee will emerge, and that person will run a much better campaign if everyone respects the results, without fear-mongering or recriminations.

That’s how democracy can work. But first, we have to make it work.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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