Primary Madhouse

Posted October 16, 2007 at 6:06pm

The mad rush by states to put themselves at the front of the presidential primary calendar creates compelling possibilities for the plot of a political thriller: Candidate X comes from nowhere, wins the Iowa caucuses (perhaps by finishing a surprising second or third), shocks the frontrunners in New Hampshire days later and then wraps up his/her party nomination with a sweep on Feb. 5 — only to have it discovered in June that he/she is a (take your pick) a) foreign agent, b) sexual predator or c) ideological extremist. The political system is thrown into chaos and the other party wins what should have been a closely fought election.

OK, all this is far-fetched as far as 2008 is concerned, but there is growing agreement that the system that has invented itself, rather on the model of Europe in the eve of World War I, is ill-serving the nation as it makes its most consequential political decision. We urge that Congress, the two political parties and state officials come to an agreement before next November on a more rational system to govern the 2012 election.

Right now, we have the spectacle of not knowing — just three months out — what the final 2008 primary schedule will be. New Hampshire’s secretary of state could still decide to move the Granite State’s primary into December. Probably, he won’t, but as matters now stand the Republican caucuses in Iowa will be on Jan. 3, with participants and onlookers barely recovered from New Year’s Eve.

In an effort to be “players” in the presidential selection process, dozens of states engaged in a game of jump-ahead this year, with Florida and Michigan being the most aggressive. Both the Republican and Democratic national parties are attempting to discipline the two by denying or restricting convention delegates selected in those two states and by discouraging candidates from campaigning there. Likely as not, a Democratic candidate who wraps up her/his nomination on “Super Duper Tuesday,” Feb. 5, will agree to seat whomever is chosen as a party-binding move.

But the Republican race this year is so wide-open that a kind of political-thriller scenario could unfold, whereby challengers to Michigan and Florida delegates at the Minneapolis convention could decide the nomination.

Even if that does not happen, the current system is a disorderly jumble that needs to be rationalized. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) have usefully started a reform effort by proposing to legislate a system of regional primaries to be held on the first Tuesdays of March, April, May and June, while allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to hold earlier events.

A useful variant on the idea might be “time zone” primaries that would include such disparate states as Georgia and New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana, and Idaho and California on the same day. The order of primaries would rotate from one cycle to the next.

Good ideas like this have been proposed before, only to fade amid lethargy and opposition from the parties and the states. The consequence is the current front-loaded madhouse. We hope Congress will take the lead in organizing a peace conference to avoid the political equivalent of World War I or the unfolding of a real thriller.