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The Democrats' Dysfunctional Calendar

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Well, the Democrats have gone and messed it up again.

I came back from a one-week vacation, out of reach of the news, to learn that the Democratic National Committee in its wisdom had further muddled the calendar of events for choosing the 2008 presidential nominee.

At a meeting in Chicago Aug. 19, the committee decided by voice vote to insert Nevada between Iowa and New Hampshire and to follow New Hampshire with a contest in South Carolina.

The revised calendar, at least tentatively, has the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Jan. 14, 2008, with Nevada holding its caucuses five days later, on Saturday, Jan. 19. Then it would be back across the country for the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Jan. 22, with South Carolina voting in a primary one week later, on Tuesday, Jan. 29.

All this effort to force-feed four contests in four different parts of the country into a two-week period at the start of the year is designed, the sponsors say, to make the presidential nominating process more "representative."

What they mean is that Iowa and New Hampshire, which have led the nominating process since 1976, are overwhelmingly white -- and notably short of the African American and Latino voters on whom Democrats depend in the general election.

So Nevada, with a growing Hispanic population, was inserted before New Hampshire, thanks also to a boost from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator. And South Carolina was an easy choice to fill the need for a state with lots of black voters, pleasing native son and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, an unannounced contender for the nomination that eluded him last time.

This Democratic version of affirmative action leaves a lot to be desired. Unions are a major source of Democratic votes and money. Maybe Rhode Island should be rewarded for being a stronghold of union activity at a time when labor elsewhere is beleaguered. And gays vote Democratic; shouldn't the states that are home to San Francisco and Key West be allowed to vote early? And if Jewish contributors keep the party solvent, shouldn't New York be up there with the other pacesetters?

This way lies madness, and madness is what the Democrats have wrought. When they started tinkering with their rules after the 1968 election disaster, they unleashed a fierce competition among the states to be at the head of the line, where the contests have the greatest impact on weeding the field and crowning the eventual winner.

New Hampshire was already there, thanks to a state law that had given it the first primary since 1952. Iowa jumped in with its caucuses, which launched Jimmy Carter in 1976. And then came the deluge. When state after state moved up primaries from April, May and June into early March, the "front-loading" problem became acute.

What was lost in all this was any sense of public deliberation about the choice of the next president. In the general election, people have two months or more to evaluate two or maybe three candidates. In the early primaries, eight or 10 people may be vying. What is most needed is time -- and a place -- for them to be carefully examined.

Historically, New Hampshire has fulfilled that responsibility. Voters there -- in both parties and especially among the numerous independents who also vote in the primary -- take their role seriously. They turn up at town meetings and they ask probing questions. So do the interviewers at local papers and broadcast stations. So do high school students.

New Hampshire voters don't need -- or particularly want -- guidance from Iowa, and frequently they ignore the Iowa results. But they are stuck with Iowa. Now, thanks to the Democrats, they may be stuck with Nevada as well, and crowded from behind by South Carolina.

The governor of New Hampshire, Democrat John Lynch, told me his state might defy the party rules and move its primary even earlier -- despite a threat to strip the winner of any delegates New Hampshire could deliver. That is a terrible remedy -- but one the Democrats have forced New Hampshire to consider.

Whatever New Hampshire does, the country will be forced to witness the huge field of candidates flashing by in perpetual motion during the December holidays and the frantic first weeks of January, not standing still anywhere long enough to be measured for the job they are trying to win.

Thanks a lot, Democrats.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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