Super Tuesday is in the books and due to a much earlier primary election date, for the first time in decades California’s huge bulge of delegates have finally had meaningful impact in both the Democratic and Republican races. With his victory in California and numerous other Super Tuesday primaries, John McCain is now the Republican frontrunner. While Hillary Clinton captured California, the Democratic race between her and Barack Obama is still far from decided.
Stepping back to look at the overall election process of the past year, one clear winner is the electorate. For starters, there have been a ton of nationally televised debates – 15 for the Republicans leading up to the California Primary and 17 for the Democrats. Just about any interested voter with cable TV has had a pretty good opportunity to see and hear the many candidates. Certainly each debate format has had its warts, but overall it has been a good show. I especially recall the YouTube debate where a hokey homemade video of a melting snowman asked the candidates about global warming. Clever. For those who enjoy conflict on TV, no doubt the best “smackdown” was in the Democrats’ South Carolina debate where Hillary and Obama slung mountains of mud big time. For those who enjoy reconciliation on TV, by the next debate in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater the two had reconciled and all was peace and love.
At times the debates have been “opposite world.” At the Florida debate, John McCain and his Republican opponents mentioned the so-called “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska twice as an example of egregious Federal spending waste, noted that the current Bush has grown government the fastest since the halcyon days of LBJ, and vilified Rumsfeld (and by implication George W. Bush) for gross ineptitude in handling the Iraq War. Aren’t the Democrats supposed to be raising these issues? Instead, the Donkey Party spends globs of precious debate time trying to draw fine degrees of separation between competing universal health plans. Boring.
The When-Did-You-Stop-Beating-Your-Spouse Award goes to a question of Hillary in the California debate: “If you can’t control your husband Bill in the campaign, how will you be able to control him in the White House?” One of the most off-the-wall questions asked Obama about writer Toni Morrison’s observation that “Bill Clinton was the first black president.” (This is interesting thinking – given that his humanitarianism has obvious parallels to fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa, perhaps Jimmy Carter was the first woman president?)
Arguably the most fundamental measure that the process is working is that fame and fortune has not guaranteed candidates’ success nor has relative poverty and lack of name recognition precluded a strong run at the presidency. Witness the $100 million campaign crash and burn of Giuliani, and the pre-California demise of John Edwards who entered the race with strong name recognition. At the same time, the Quixotic campaign of Ron Paul, who reportedly led all fundraisers with $30 million in Fourth Quarter ’07, proves that in an era of national TV exposure and the Internet a candidate with a message that resonates in the right circles can run deep into the primaries. Or for that matter, only months ago John McCain’s campaign was on the verge of financial collapse and the many debates and early primaries have enabled him to recover. And a year ago, who would have thought that Messrs. Obama and Huckabee would become household words?
As America’s democracy moves forward, the current primary system seems to be working and working quite well. Stay tuned.