Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Presidential Primary Reform

Last night I was too depressed, and too tired, to write about the New Hampshire primary. Now it’s a new day, and the tiredness has passed.

The irony of New Hampshire lies in the fine art of crying. Forty years ago Ed Muskie was driven from the race after shedding some tears in public over the way his wife had been ravaged by William Loeb, the extremist publisher of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper. Crying was a sign of weakness, an unacceptable quality for a man who wanted to be the leader of the free world. Jump to the present: when Hillary’s eyes welled up with water it demonstrated her compassion and humanity. While an argument could be made that this favorable public view of crying politicians is nothing but sexism wearing a new coat of paint, I would like to think that we, as a nation, have finally matured to the point where we can allow our political leaders a modicum of emotional release. The tale will be told when a contemporary male politician produces some eye leakage in a public setting. Will he get the Muskie heave-ho or the Hillary bounce?

The plus from last night’s New Hampshire election returns, for both parties, is that it virtually insures that the suspense will continue at least through Tsunami Tuesday on February 5th. Millions more of us will have some actual input in selecting our party’s candidates, rather than just voting to ratify (or not) the de facto pre-selected party candidates. The race goes on!

The primary process is more democratic this year than ever before, but it still has some serious flaws. Why, for instance, are Iowa and New Hampshire still allowed to be first every election year, enabling them to garner so much candidate face time and campaign cash? Why should those two states always have so much impact on who is ultimately selected to head each ticket? One argument is that they are so representative of America, but that is just silly on its face. How does the average voter of Iowa equate with the average voter of Alabama, or Alaska? What do voters of New Hampshire have in common with the voters in California or Hawaii?

Unfortunately, the presidential primaries are the bastard children of the political parties and the state legislatures. The parties could, in theory, establish a rotating primary system that would be fairer than the mess that now exists. One sensible solution would be to set up three regional primaries, and every four years change the order in which those regional primaries are held. That would allow candidates to focus on one area of the country at a time, and marshal their energies (and money) to meet three deadlines instead of twenty or so.

But sensibility doesn’t play well in many state legislatures. Those who have always been first (Iowa and New Hampshire) want to retain the glory and cash that the process brings to their states. And other aggressive states (Wyoming, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida) want in on the act. Tsunami Tuesday is a big step in the right direction, but by the time it arrives, some candidates will have already been beaten into a penniless pulp by the early primaries.

What will it take to fix this mess and give all Americans an opportunity to have real input into the presidential nominating process? Apparently, as evidenced by the circus this year, it is beyond the ability of the national parties to fix the situation, and the states are understandably self-centered as they push to get ahead of each other on the calendar. Maybe it will require a Constitutional Amendment to rectify the situation, or, at the very least, a strong stance by Congress – of course, a strong stance by Congress is also silly on its face!

Oh, and my reaction to the New Hampshire results? I made another donation to Barack. There is nothing “free” about democracy!

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