22 November 2007

New Hampshire: Add Plenty of Fertilizer

The following are words of wisdom from William Gardner, the New Hampshire Secretary of State:

"I think of it this way. A nut falls in the forest. The seeds take hold. The big tree happened a long, long time ago. You can't just plant the tree somewhere else. You can't just re-create this."

This enigmatic remark is meant to justify the state's decision to reschedule its primary elections to January 8 and thus retain its "first in the nation status." No other state is as qualified as New Hampshire to make the first choice from among the major party aspirants, Gardner claims, but as you see, tradition is the only qualification demonstrated here.

There's a case for giving a small state the privilege of the first choice. Doing so supposedly imposes a test of the candidates' skill at "retail politics," their ability to motivate manpower to get out the vote. The winner is credited with powers of leadership and persuasion. The case may have merit, but there's no reason why the first test should always be in New Hampshire. There are other small states, after all. Just staying in New England, you could send the candidates to Vermont or Rhode Island. There are states just as small in population to the west, like Montana and Wyoming. Nor should anyone fear the wrath of New Hampshire. What will they do if they lose their privileged position? Secede from the Union?

In any event, there are also arguments against the eccentric tradition of an allegedly decisive early primary. New Hampshire was once held in superstitious reverence because it was alleged that no candidate could win the White House without winning that state's primary. Bill Clinton made that claim a myth and earned the "Comeback Kid" label by winning the Democratic nomination and the Presidency in 1992 after losing the primary. George W. Bush also lost there in 2000, for what that's worth. New Hampshire can no longer claim to be a predictor of Presidential viability.
Nor should we take for granted that skill at "retail politics" shows that someone will make a good President, or even the best candidate in a general election. John Kerry was better at retail politics than Howard Dean, but was terrible in the general campaign, and has since given us little reason to think he might have been a successful President. Since whoever wins the nomination has to win a general election, he or she may as well try to win a national primary.
If you don't like the sound of that, and you worry that it would give relative small-timers even less opportunity than they enjoy now, then your problem is with the American Bipolarchy in general and not with its system of choosing candidates in particular. As long as we have national parties that claim to be democratic in character, then we may as well have national primaries. Eliminate the Bipolarchy and we can start to talk about alternate arrangements.

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