Matt Yglesias has an intriguing post up about Tommy Thompson's recently announced bid for the WH and what sort of difference a President Thompson might have made in 2000 compared to George W. Bush. Yglesias also uses this comparative as an indictment of the primary process in general.
On the first front, in international affairs, Thompson would have probably responded in similar fashion towards Afghanistan (as would I suspect most any president of either party) but his approach from there would have depended greatly on who made up his foreign policy team. While a Thompson national security team would have undoubtedly been hawkish, it would seem hard to imagine that the neo-conservative influence would have been as substantial, and thus the Iraq war probably less likely. On this point, while much of the public and pundit world rallied around Bush's call to arms against Iraq, I doubt a major push to attack Iraq would have come into being without a major push by the administration.
I suspect domestic policy would have been more or less the same as under Bush. While
Thompson doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve as much as Bush--and for that reason might not have been buffeted by the adoring allegiance of millions of American evangelicals, Thompson is apparently still very conservative on much of the traditional Republican social agenda from abortion to gay rights.
On the economic front, given Thompson's reputation for innovation, it wouldn't have surprised me if Thompson had pushed Social Security privatization "reform". And he would have undoubtedly pushed for a broad range of tax cuts given both the actual and projected budget surpluses he was faced with, as well as the political environment he inherited--a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress and a conservative Republican elite that is enamored of tax cuts at any time for any reason anyway.
Which I guess brings me to the second part of Yglesias' post:
What it comes down to is that, somewhat perversely, the "more open" primary system -- as opposed to old-school smoke filled rooms -- has in many ways made webs of connections more rather than less important. Power has been taken out of the hands of a small group of geographically dispersed elites who, acting out of self-interest, might choose to elevate a relatively obscure figure in the interests of securing victory and placed less in the hands of a broad mass of people than in the hands of a small geographically concentrated elite that controls the channels of mass communications -- i.e., the Washington political press. This elite, lacking an actual stake in the outcome, can afford to let self-interest essentially dictate a policy of laziness. Hence, we may be doomed to an endless cycle of Senators (who DC political reporters already cover), governors from Virginia and Maryland (whose exploits are detailed in the Metro section of The Washington Post), and scions of famous families.
I have a number of reservations about the current presidential selection process, but I'm not as sure as Yglesias seems to be that the traditional Republican elite didn't play a substantial role in enlisting Mr. Bush to run. In fact, I strongly suspect Mr. Bush was THE choice of the financiers and ideologues that make up the party's visible and invisible leadership. When the books are written about the behind the scenes dynamics in 2000--and maybe those books are already out there, I don't know--we will have a better sense of this influence. Anyway, I doubt the role of primaries and the role of the Washington elite press corps had much to do with Bush's elevation in 2000. I think Bush's selection was engineered from behind closed doors by a geographically diverse, but not ideologically diverse or financially diverse of Republican leaders who saw in Bush both a positive name recognition as well as someone who could be "taught" and guided to make the "right" policy choices by the powers behind the throne. Someone like Thompson might have seemed to some of the hierarchy as sufficiently conservative but, having held the governorship of Wisconsin for seemingly the past half century, as not being sufficiently pliable.
As to Yglesias' broader point about the primary process, I don't know if the Washington media is any different than it's been throughout it's modern history. Consider 1976. The Democratic candidates frequently mentioned as contenders that year were nearly all Washington insiders, mostly Senators (Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, Teddy Kennedy, and Walter Mondale) with perennial but now paralyzed Alabama Governor George Wallace thrown in for good measure. No one saw Carter coming. In 1988 and 1992, the popular names were Mario Cuomo, governor of NY and long a public figure, and Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley, both U.S. Senators. So, there's long been a tendency for the Washington press corps to pay attention to incumbent Senators or well-known personages when talk of the presidency comes up. So, I doubt the obstacles to a Thompson campaign would have been any less in 1988 than in 2000, or that the results would have been any different.
As for the role of party and political or media elites, I suspect that's varied over time and between the parties. Ronald Reagan was to a large degree a product of (well, himself mostly) of the rising tide of grassroots conservatism, spurred on by evangelical and anti-communist opinion leaders. Over time the Republican elite shifted from its base in the northeast and a relatively moderate to liberal political vision to a more radically conservative and centralized one based largely in the south.
It's a little less clear to me who the Democratic party elite is, if there is any or if there has been any consistent group or ideology for any meaningful length of time. Throughout the 90's, the Democratic elite was largely centrist and money-oriented, two inclinations that went hand in hand. But both Al Gore's defeat, as well as his straying from the DLC line in 2000, helped thwart that orientation, as did the politics of the Bush II era. The momentary rise of Howard Dean as a presidential candidate then party chairman has signaled a shift of some degree to the grassroots of the party. However, with 2008 looming the role of money is once again primed to play a significant role in the nomination and to be focused largely on a candidacy by HRC, shifting power once again away from the grassroots and genuinely democratic Democratic Party selection process. John Edwards and Wes Clark seem to me the two candidates most outside of this system; Obama may not be formally affiliated with the centrist Clintonistas, but his approach seems about the equivalent of theirs, as would the candidacies of Joe Biden, Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack.
What would be a better system? As Harry Truman's 1992 biographer, David McCoullough put in when describing the 1944 vice-presidential nomination process that elevated Truman, "the old boys network in the smoke-filled room made a pretty good choice" (very rough paraphrase). So at certain periods of time, there's probably something to be said for elite decision-making and winnowing. But, although I would prefer a primary and caucus system that allowed room for legitimate action at the party conventions, I do think the primary system still offers voters the best opportunity to influence their parties and the political system.
My preference would be for a more spread out primary system that either rotated states that went first or provided for a system that provided regional competition at the early stages on the same day or days. For example, instead of Iowa having the first caucus by itself, two or three states from separate regions would vote on the same day. That would raise havoc with the campaigns who'd have to decide whether to compete in some or all of the states that day and make it more expensive for them to do so. But it might come closer to making the early races more competitive and ensuring a more deliberative process.
In any event, now that the election is over, let the election begin.