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Fixing the Broken Presidential Nomination Process


Friday, Jan. 11, 2008

Only those living in caves, or maybe more interested in the travails of Britney Spears, are unaware that the presidential primary and caucus season has arrived. As one who has followed this quadrennial event closely for many years, I find that it never ceases to amaze that rather than simplifying this process - not to mention making it less expensive - with the passage of time, we have done just the opposite. In the larger scheme of problems, the broken nominating process is certainly not our most serious. Yet the failure to resolve it is indicative of the attitude of today's political leaders.

This year, some thirty-four states will determine their presidential nominee before March 1; in 2000, by comparison, only eleven states took such action so early. Everything has been front-loaded and compressed. The process may well exhaust the candidates, not to mention the voters. Given the current system, moreover, few Americans will actually interact with the candidates before the process has ended.

Both major parties' inability to fix this fundamental problem should call into question their ability to govern. It is a very bad sign that a matter as basic as nominating presidential candidates has been turned into a contest of money-raising and organization. Such a contest surely does not translate into effective governing (as Bush and Cheney have proven).

The sad truth is that political parties care little about American voters and the democratic processes. One needs to look no further than the insane primary schedule for 2008.

The Insane 2008 Presidential Preference Schedule

Already, we have seen Iowa (which almost pushed its caucuses into 2007) and New Hampshire successfully demand that, though far from the nation's largest states, they lead the way in selecting the next president. Now - with the race for the nomination far from settled - the schedule is picking up speed in the coming weeks (and months). The presidential primary schedule for 2008 is absurd. A madman could not have designed it to be worse.

In January, in addition to Iowa and New Hampshire, there are primaries in Michigan (1/15), Nevada has precinct caucuses (1/19), and there is a GOP primary in South Carolina (1/19). A week later, there is the Democratic primary in South Carolina (1/26), and the month ends with the Florida primary (1/29).

In February, Maine holds a GOP primary (2/1), and there are a slew of primaries taking place in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho (D), Illinois, Kansas (D), Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico (D), New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah (all on 2/5), plus caucuses in Colorado and North Dakota (also both on 2/5). If this Super Tuesday scattered across the land has not resolved the matter, then the rest of the month should, with the Louisiana and Kansas GOP primaries (2/9), Maine Democratic caucuses (2/10), primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia (2/12), and primaries in Hawaii (D), Washington, and Wisconsin (2/19).

In the unlikely event that the nominees have not been decided by mid-February, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Wyoming (D) and Mississippi will hold primaries in March. Pennsylvania has its primary in April; then Indiana, North Carolina, Nebraska, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon and Idaho (R) in May, followed by Montana, New Mexico (R), and South Dakota in June.

It is an awful schedule. It is based on the whims and greed of state legislatures and state and national party officials. It is has no basis in logic or reason. It creates all but impossible logistical problems for candidates. It increases campaigning costs, forcing candidates to rely on large campaign donors. A few small states benefit, at the expense of everyone else, and it is anything but conducive to finding candidates most suitable to become President of the United States.

Actually, there are good and relatively simply solutions to this nightmare. Not for this year, but for the future. For example, among the soundest is the concept of rotating regional primaries.

Fixing the Broken Presidential Nomination Process

Frankly, a return to the smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear would be no less undemocratic than the current system, where a few early states set the table and decide the presidential menu for the nation. Just as political bosses once shut out qualified candidates, so too does the current system. Ask Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson.

Some reformers have called for a one-day national primary, but this would only create its own new set of problems, including even greater expenses. Most saliently, it would force candidates to focus nationally and naturally in the states where the most convention delegates would be found, and ignore the others. A more rational, if not even reasonable, approach is some variation of a regional primary system.

This approach would divide the country into (typically, in proposals) four or six regions. The states within those regions would then all hold their primary or caucus at the same time, with the election in each of the regions staggered over the first four or six months of a presidential election year. (A few of the reform proposals have made exceptions for Iowa and New Hampshire, to also allow them to continue as the first in the nation, but such an exception makes no sense, nor does giving these states such disproportionate influence, which forcing candidates to spend millions to court smaller sets of voters.)

Although there is widespread recognition of the need for reform, and support for a regional system, nothing has happened. Congress has held hearings that call attention to the problems, and the opposition has been token and technical and largely from those who now benefit from the irrational system in existence. Yet no action has been taken.

This problem, unfortunately, is typical of the current American attitude in politics of awaiting disasters before addressing them, and then over-reacting. We do this because of the political division separating the activists on both sides, with each side more worried about the other getting some advantage, than it is about simply fixing the problems everyone acknowledges exist.

Sadly, this attitude is widely prevalent for all problems - be they small or large. All candidates avoid addressing such problems, in order to play it safe. Neither party wants to go to the mat with Iowa and New Hampshire, and tell them that they do not represent America: They are too white, too rich, and too rural. But time is running out on politics as usual, so it was encouraging that a bipartisan forum of high-profile political people spoke out on the problem in general, as Election 2008 gets underway. For as long as the current political divisions in the country persist, we cannot fix anything.

A Well-Placed Warning about Politics As Usual

Former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, a Democrat and now the president of the University of Oklahoma, assembled a bipartisan forum on January 7 and 8, 2008, which made a request of all the presidential contenders: End the divisive politics. This is the advice of seventeen experienced political leaders, who paused to call attention to the obvious.

The bipartisan forum explained that the nation, because of its current political divisions, is in a state of crisis. The New York Times and others, however, quickly brushed off this effort because of the surging and transforming victory of Barack Obama in Iowa.

But those who ignore the "Ben Gay Forum" will find they have discounted this collective and seasoned wisdom at our shared peril. Those who think the geezers have gotten it wrong, or no longer understand, will no doubt discover otherwise when it is too late. If we are a nation that cannot fix the smallest of problems, like the presidential nominating scheme, what chance is there to fix the larger ones?

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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