The Lonely Centrist

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Time to end the Iowa caucuses?

The Democrats have been trying to rearrange the primary schedule to lessen the importance of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. Peter Beinart of the New Republic is critical of the new system. (Registration required).

But Beinart's criticism is a bit mixed up. He writes:
caucuses are interest-group heaven. They empower small, highly motivated, well-organized factions, and they disempower everyone else. On both sides of the aisle, candidates who challenge core party constituencies (Scoop Jackson in 1972 and 1976, Al Gore in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, John McCain in 2000, Joe Lieberman in 2004) either don't compete in Iowa or get buried there

Well, which is it? Are "highly motivated, well-organized factions" in charge, or are "core party constituencies" excluded. I guess Beinart is using them differently, but usually "core constituencies" are what you think of as "well organized factions." Beinart notes that Howard Dean used to oppose the caucuses, saying
If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by special interests in both parties. The special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.
But this quote - from 2000, merely brings to mind Dean's 2004 campaign. What was it but a "highly motivated, well-organized faction?" And it got thumped by John Kerry, a more centrist (albeit still liberal) Democrat. And what was Richard Gephardt? As the House minority leader, an old line Democrat supported by big labor, did he represent a small "well organized faction," or a "core constituency?" Since he lost, I guess it was the latter - but if he had won, you could certainly have said it was the former, no?

Anyway, Beinart concludes that sandwiching the Nevada caucuses in between Iowa and New Hampshire makes the whole system less "democratic," but it's not really clear why, and frankly, it's not even clear why a "more democratic" system is a good idea - after all, it was back in the days before primaries that centrist Democrats such as Johnson, Kennedy and Truman won the nomination - even Stevenson and Humphrey fended off more liberal candidates to win the nomination. It's since then that the Democrats have gone with McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry.

I'm not sure there is much you can do about the nomination process right now. For reasons I don't understand, a poor performance in Iowa or New Hampshire seems to wrap it up. I do not get the herd mentality that sends the press, pundits, and apparently donors, volunteers and voters - scurrying at a couple primary results. It would be sort of like watching a basketball game, and 2 minutes in with the score 4-0, the losing coach folds up shop.

Beinart seems to think that this can be changed - he just doesn't like these changes the DNC is proposing. But how? What one state is really so representative of America? And isn't the problem less the nature of the caucuses or primaries, and who shows up - which is Beinart's position - than the fact that because we let the first two events determine everything, candidates aren't thoroughly vetted? The Democratic Party process in 2004 was typical, and it was like a stock bubble. Kerry, gotta buy Kerry. Big rush of investors, stock price runs up, and only then do we discover the company isn't so great after all; after an initial visit, customers don't return to the store, so to speak. Bubble bursts, stock price collapses, Democrats go bust, country gets four more years of Bush.

So I agree with Beinart that the new formula won't accomplish much, but I think he's got the wrong diagnosis, and certainly the wrong cure. Unfortunately, I have no miracle cure either.

Dean probably wouldn't put it that way today

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