Sunday, January 25, 2004

The primaries' cosmic whimsy


As the results of Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses became known Monday night, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell found plenty to criticize. The former Democratic National Committee head told Fox News he was disturbed that major candidacies could be destroyed so quickly by so few voters in one small state.

He observed that in Iowa, all the candidates combined received only half the votes Rendell got in his first run for Philadelphia district attorney in 1978. Even with a relative handful of votes separating the candidates, Rep. Dick Gephardt lost the expectations game and dropped out before anyone else in the nation got to weigh in on him.

Rendell's questions: Is this any way to choose a president? Can't we do it more rationally? As the next political "Survivor" round - Tuesday's New Hampshire primary - approaches, these are questions more Americans ought to be asking. By the time Ohio's primary rolls around on March 2, the nomination may have been decided, giving Buckeye Democrats no real voice, no real choice. When Kentuckians hold their primary May 18, this almost certainly will be true.

Defenders say the present system is a useful winnowing process that efficiently weeds out those unfit or unprepared for office. "The real purpose behind the superficially bizarre rituals of an American election ...is to test the inner resources and character of the candidates, and to do this by exposing them to a grueling series of artificially induced crises," Tech Central Station online columnist Lee Harris argued this week.

Maybe. But by investing so much meaning in scrawny outcomes from the fields of Iowa or the hills of New Hampshire, we invite fluky results, a chain-reaction of cosmic whimsy like the proverbial butterfly's wing-flutter leading to the dinosaurs' extinction. It's possible that a handler, stopping to grab a cup of coffee, missed the chance to pull Howard Dean aside and advise him to cool it for the TV cameras in his Iowa "concession" screech. The outcome of the presidential election may have hinged on that cup of coffee.

Flukes always play a hand in history, but their effects can be moderated. One solution might be early regional primaries, where the will of millions can be heard at once, giving authentic weight to this sorting-out.

One of the media questioners at Thursday night's debate in New Hampshire half-jokingly asked the candidates to pledge that as president they will defend New Hampshire's "first-in-the-nation primary" status.

Americans' reaction to that ought to be, "No way."

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