America's democracy has always had its flaws, but it has long been considered the best. Our political "leaders" are changing that.
Those of you who have lives may not have noticed that our presidential nominating process, which in recent years has been teetering on the brink of insanity, has plunged into madness.
The most recent move in the race to the bottom was the decision the South Carolina Republican party made Aug. 9 to move its presidential primary to Jan. 19. South Carolina made the move to get back in front of Florida, which on May 21 moved up its primary from Mar. 4 to Jan. 29, the day for which the South Carolina primary was originally scheduled.
Because New Hampshire has a state law that requires that its primary be held at least a week before any other, the New Hampshire primary will be moved up to at least Jan. 12, which is a Saturday. If New Hampshire were to hold its primary as customary on a Tuesday, then the latest it could be held would be Jan. 8.
The Iowa caucuses traditionally have been held eight days before the New Hampshire primary. If New Hampshire moves its primary to Jan. 8, and Iowa keeps the normal separation, then the Iowa caucuses would be held on New Year's Day.
Though caucus goers may make better choices when they're roaring drunk, and it would be delightful to make political reporters work that day, this is unlikely to happen. New Hampshire is likely to opt for its first ever Saturday primary, so Iowa can hold its caucus during the election year, though barely after the college football bowl games have ended. But at this writing it is possible the voting for president in 2008 will begin in 2007.
Florida, the bete noire in this toppling of dominoes, moved its primary to Jan 29 to steal a march on New York, California and the other states that have scheduled their primaries for Feb. 5. A de facto national primary will be held that day.
The Republican National Committee has told the Florida GOP they'll refuse to seat half their 114 delegates if Florida holds its primary before Feb. 5. The Democratic National Committee has made similar threats, but leaders of both parties in the Sunshine State are ignoring them.
The RNC and the DNC need to go further, and refuse to seat any delegates who are selected outside the window they set. The national parties are much to blame for the current chaotic situation, for failing to put their foot down sooner. The DNC even contributed to the mess by scheduling a caucus in Nevada for Jan. 19, to diminish the importance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Since South Carolina now will hold its primary on that date, the Nevada caucuses will get little attention from either candidates or the news media. The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley.
The fundamental problem is there are too many primaries. Most Americans think primaries are a better way of selecting delegates than caucuses, or (G-d forbid!) party conventions. But it's possible to have too much of a good thing, as anybody who's eaten a quart of ice cream at a sitting can tell you. It costs a lot to compete in primaries, and when they're bunched together, they become contests more between the ad managers and fund raisers of the candidates than between the candidates themselves.
It's understandable why people in other states resent the enormously disproportionate role Iowa and New Hampshire have played in the nominating process. But these are the only contests which feature "retail" campaigning, where presidential candidates actually mix and mingle with the people.
The way to diminish the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, while enhancing retail campaigning, is to have fewer primaries, more widely spaced. This would permit dark horse candidates to emerge, and to have a later primary like Wisconsin for the Democrats in 1960, or California for the Republicans in 1964 be decisive.
It's too late for 2008, but this year's mess could be the impetus for reform in future elections.
The political parties should seat no delegates selected before March of the election year. All the big states, save California, should abandon their primaries, selecting their delegates instead by party convention. The California primary should be moved back to its historic date in June, putting an exclamation point on the primary season.
Sometimes less is more. If there were fewer primaries, there'd be more interest in each of them. Let the process begin with Iowa and New Hampshire in the first week of March, with a primary or a caucus every Tuesday and Saturday thereafter until the first week in June. If the big states schedule their district and state conventions for May and June, their choices will be informed by the results of the primaries.