Poor Jeb Bush, the candidate with one of the most “party establishment” last names in politics, got bit in the butt by the rules that were put in place to protect establishment team-players like him. Just when he was about to show a rare bit of independence and testicular fortitude by declaring that he will not support the Republican Party’s nominee for president if that person is current GOP front-runner Donald Trump, the party rules forced him to shut up and fall in line.
Many media outlets reported this week that Bush was preparing to denounce Trump and announce his intent to abandon the GOP’s 2016 effort if Trump wins the nomination. Those reports quickly gave way to the reality that loyalty oaths and party rules would keep him off the primary ballot in the South Carolina and other states if he strayed. The Bush campaign did acknowledge that his staff had researched rules and laws to determine the feasibility and consequences of making such a brash statement, but he ultimately held back in his criticism of Trump so as not to cross the partisan loyalty line.
Several states have party rules that block candidates from ballot access in partisan primaries unless they pledge to support the eventual nominee. Those rules have been put in place over the years by parties to ensure that political insurgencies are reigned in and the party’s power is protected.
Earlier this year, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus traipsed all over the country forcing the Republican presidential candidates to sign a pledge to support the party’s nominee and not to run as independents if they lost the nomination. That effort was done to keep Donald Trump’s loyalty to the party. (Trump and Ben Carson were the reason why GOP elders reportedly met recently to discuss how to use the rules and broker a convention if Trump held the post-primary lead but lacked enough delegates to be nominated.) It’s ironic that the Preibus oath and other barriers to independence have now kept a Bush on the party’s reservation.
Preibus’ fear of a Trump independent run isn’t anything new. Worries about credible independent candidacies have led to strict ballot access laws, and also "sore-loser laws" in many states. Sore-loser laws prevent anyone who loses a party primary from appearing on the ballot as an independent or minor party candidate. That kept former Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson off the ballot in Michigan in 2012 when he ran as the Libertarian Party nominee after competing in the Republican primary.
The Republican and Democratic parties are the only two parties that have cleared all the hurdles to automatically have ballot access in all 50 states. The Libertarian and Green parties have worked to gain ballot access in enough states to theoretically win enough electoral votes to be elected president, but it’s certainly not likely that their candidates would win all of the states where they have ballot access. It would cost millions and millions of dollars for an independent candidate or minor party candidate to qualify for the ballot in all the states. That’s because the two parties have rigged the rules to make it exactly that impossible.
Ballot access isn’t the only way the two major parties manipulate the process to maintain their power. The Commission on Presidential Debates is made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats who work together to ensure that their parties’ candidates are the only candidates for president and vice-president who meet the stringent qualifications to be included in those nationally televised debates.
Loyalty oaths, ballot access, debate access and other traps in the system are all designed to keep the Republicans and Democrats in charge. The Democrats' poorly watched Saturday-before-Christmas debate last night is another example of that party scheduling major events to enhance the establishment candidate, in this case Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley need the party so they can stand on the same stage as Clinton; the price for that is the debates have likely been -- unlike the Republicans' prime-time, record-breaking audiences -- intentionally scheduled not to be watched. Maintaining their power and control over the process is the goal. And yet, ironically, their power has never been quite so tenuous.
Donald Trump is running as a Republican because it is the most realistic way to get elected president. But he doesn't need the party beyond the access to the ballot and the debates. Trump probably isn’t any more a Republican than socialist independent-turned-Democratic candidate for president Sanders is a Democrat. But both of those candidates know that the two major parties have constructed the rules to make it virtually impossible to win the presidency as an independent or minor party candidate.
The strength of both of those candidacies is fueled by anti-establishment sentiments in both parties. Most Americans are fed up with the partisan establishment duopoly’s hold on the system, and the party establishments, especially the Republicans, are starting to be overwhelmed. The flood of money into the system post-Citizens United has also created power bases -- and funding sources -- for the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires looking to influence -- or even rival -- the party itself.
The truth is that only about half of American voters even identify with either major party anymore. The rest of us are in minor parties or part of the 45 percent of Americans who identify as independent. The growing numbers of independents, and even the anti-establishment partisans, are finally reaching the critical mass necessary to start a long-term push to enact non-partisan reforms to the electoral process.
Reforming the process to break what's left of the two-party hold on the process will take a long time, with a non-partisan political environment as the ultimate goal. Several state and local electoral systems have made progress toward opening up the process, but the presidential election remains the toughest nut to crack for reformers. It’s proving over and over that it doesn’t work for any of us anymore, even Jeb Bush, who the loyalty oaths and establishment rules were designed to benefit.