Iowa's Regrettable Line in the Sand
Iowa Republicans have drawn a line in the sand by setting the date of their presidential caucuses for Jan. 3, 2008. Will New Hampshire's Bill Gardner now step across and risk blowing up the entire nominating calendar?
Almost no matter what happens in the coming weeks, as New Hampshire and other states continue to jockey for privilege and position, the presidential nominating system will have been stretched beyond reasonable limits. Envy, jealousy, parochialism and state pride have put the nominating process in jeopardy.
Every actor in this drama believes he or she is acting in good faith to preserve a system they think has served the country well (and not incidentally has brought enormous attention and economic benefits to their states) -- or to challenge a system they argue has granted too much influence to a pair of small, mostly white states. Collectively they have produced chaos.
The decision by Iowa Republicans now guarantees the earliest start ever for the presidential primary-caucus season and very possibly the earliest-ever effective conclusion to the nominating process. By Feb. 6, 2008, the day after the biggest primary day in history, the identity of both nominees could be known.
That in turn guarantees the longest-ever general election in the nation's history, a costly, negative nine-month marathon that will exhaust the candidates and try the patience of a public that has been paying extraordinarily close attention to this campaign for almost a year already. It's no way to elect a president, particularly at a critical moment in the country's history.
Iowa Republicans picked Jan. 3, 2008, because they wanted to preserve the state's first-in-the-nation-caucus tradition and avoid holding an event in 2007. Well and good, but in doing so they have forced Iowa voters to interrupt their holiday season to think seriously about presidential politics, forced candidates to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's crisscrossing the state; forced everyone to endure a bombardment of less-than-uplifting television commercials at what should otherwise be a joyous time of the year.
If we've learned anything over the years, it's that Iowans pay attention to politics for many months before their caucuses, but generally don't get entirely serious until after the turn of the New Year. Perhaps people there will find presidential politics more compelling than the holidays, but the Jan. 3 date serves neither voters nor candidates particularly well.
Iowa Democrats have yet to decide whether to join their Republican friends and hold their caucuses the same night, or put them on another day. One Iowa Democrat was quoted in Wednesday's Des Moines Register as saying separate dates would give each party their own moment in the sun. Loosely translated that means Iowa politicos want even more attention than they normally get.
Everyone seems to want their moment in the sun. What is building is a calendar in which Republicans and Democrats operate on related but not identical tracks. Iowa Republicans will go on Jan. 3, but Iowa Democrats could go on Jan. 5. South Carolina Republicans will go on Jan. 19, but South Carolina Democrats may go on Jan. 26.
Putting aside the question of when New Hampshire will fall, events will come at a pace in January and early February that will defy the opportunity for reflection, sober second thought or buyer's remorse. States looking for their moment in the spotlight will instead experience the blur of a fast-moving train rolling through their boundaries.
The reality is that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have earned their privileged position by their seriousness and diligence in screening the candidates. In no other state is this tradition so richly embedded.
Leaders elsewhere argue that the same would happen in their states if they were given status at the front of the line, but this doesn't happen overnight. It requires an engaged electorate, media outlets willing to devote serious resources to campaign coverage and political leaders who nurture the climate of participation.
But both states have become extraordinarily demanding in this cycle. They led the effort to force Democratic candidates to pledge not to campaign in Michigan and Florida -- two renegade states whose moves to schedule their primaries in January have helped to trigger the current mess. Their expectations for candidate time and respect seem almost without limit.
The political world still awaits the decision by New Hampshire's Gardner, the long-serving secretary of state who has sole power to set the date of the Granite State's primary. Determined to preserve the state's first-in-the-nation status and spooked by Michigan's aggressive moves to challenge that status, Gardner is believed to be considering breaking all tradition and moving the primary to Dec. 11.
Publicly the New Hampshire political establishment has said they will support Gardner's decision. Privately they are terrified about the consequences of a December primary -- less perhaps for this election than for the future elections. Their fear is that a December primary could produce a backlash that would lead to a wholesale revision of the nominating process for 2012. That may come no matter what Gardner does.
When South Carolina Republicans in August announced their decision to move their primary up to Jan. 19, triggering speculation about whether Iowa and New Hampshire would be forced to move into December 2007, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver moved to quash that talk. He said Iowa would maintain it's first-in-the-nation caucuses but would not move into 2007. He rightfully established some important boundaries for everyone to follow.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D), who has less ability to directly influence the timing of the primary than Culver has in Iowa, has been publicly silent in the face of talk of a Dec. 11 primary in his state. Perhaps he is using quiet suasion to make his views and the concerns of others there known to Gardner.
Assigning blame for all this is beside the point right now. Every state that has contributed shares in the responsibility. Running for president is never an orderly process, but there should be some predictable parts to it all. If Americans think politics is broken, the calendar confusion is simply one more bit of evidence for that conclusion.
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