Back when Detroit was renowned for turning out cars that were clunkers, there was a popular bumper sticker that played on the Yiddish word for "crazy": "Made in Michigan by mishuganas." Now that Detroit makes better cars, the bumper stickers can be removed and pasted across the mouths of the people who thought up the Michigan presidential primary. Even Yiddish would be at a loss to describe it.
But how about "insult"? Or as one political activist said, "Weird -- it's very weird." And indeed it is. It involves literally thousands of people who go through a multistage process that takes more than two years before some of them, the very few, emerge at the end as delegates to the Republican National Convention. In the meantime, Michigan Republicans had a "precinct delegate filing" last May, will have another Aug. 5, will convene at a state convention, will meet again in November and then, in caucuses, choose convention delegates -- probably those people who are still awake.
All of this would be funny if we were not talking about choosing the person who could be the next president. It would be equally laughable if primaries and caucuses were not designed to open up the process of selecting delegates so that ordinary people, and not just party regulars, had a say. But Michigan has contemptuously turned its back on both propositions. With a Rube Goldberg device of a delegate selection system, it has invented a process to dampen the ardor of even a political buff. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the only people who fully understand the Michigan system are the people who developed it.
Yawn, you say. So what? you add. So this: Michigan's is the first primary in the nation. The honor that used to belong to honest and humble New Hampshire has been usurped by the Michigan GOP. It's got the first contest and with it all the attendant press publicity. At each step down the Michigan political labyrinth, the press -- not to mention the candidates -- will declare winners and losers. And those winners will benefit. Not only will they garner even more press attention, but money as well. To the winner go the big bucks. Politics, like life itself, is not fair. The less money you need, the more you get.
So who has won so far? Why, it is none other than the Rev. Pat Robertson. He not only did "better than expected," but he might have either tied or beaten Vice President George Bush, with Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) coming in third. Although the first-place results remain in dispute, the actual numbers hardly matter. Since Bush did as expected, and Robertson did better than expected, Robertson (as expected) walked off with the bulk of the favorable publicity.
Maybe Robertson's showing bears some resemblance to how he would do if, God forbid, Michigan simply held a primary. Maybe. But don't bet on it. Instead, the results likely showed that Robertson has enough of a well-motivated constituency to file a ton of petitions. Given enough people who mistake a delegate selection process for a religious crusade, you can get the sort of results you got in Michigan. When the process finally gets down to choosing delegates by caucus from congressional districts, there could well be another winner.
For Michigan, botched, marred and otherwise incomprehensible delegate selection systems are getting to be a tradition. In 1984 some Democratic voters complained that they could not even find the polls, and those that did often found themselves in halls run by the very same unions that had staked all on the nomination of Walter Mondale. Television viewers were treated to scenes of union officers entreating voters right at the polling booth to vote "the right way."
By comparison, though, Michigan Democrats were up front, even brazen, about what their intent was. The Michigan GOP is downright sneaky. It has designed a delegate selection process that can only discourage voters from participating, that is so convoluted and Byzantine that only the most motivated will persist. It is, in short, a disgrace to the very concept of democracy -- that the system works best when the most people participate in it. Like the automobile industry, the Michigan GOP ought to reform itself. Ford had a better idea. So should the Michigan GOP. It's called a primary.