- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

Presidential politics is in a state of arrogance, self-centeredness, shortsightedness — a state that is, to put it bluntly, revolting. We are not talking about the candidates. We are talking about the states.

The politically disunited states of America are revolting, one by one, against presidential primary and caucus calendar rules set by the Republican and Democratic national committees. The states are pushing to be the first — or at least among the first — to twirl in the converging spotlights of Media and Politics 2008. And you know why: The states crave the attention, power, glory and, especially, money that pours into first-decider states during the campaign courtship.

Now there is an absurd but all-too-real possibility the first votes of Campaign 2008 will be cast in 2007.

Here’s why: Florida just shoved itself ahead of the pack, moving its primary to Jan. 29 so it can be the first big-state decider. The national parties had set the date of Feb. 5, 2008, as the earliest for the first round of primaries and caucuses. And 23 states, from California to New York, pushed their way into that first tier, creating an unwieldy and probably unworkable campaign mess called “Tsunami Tuesday.”

The national parties had firmly decreed this date was absolute. Yet, politics being politics, they had permitted four exceptions: Iowa’s traditional first caucus, New Hampshire’s traditional first primary, plus one southern state, South Carolina, and one western state, Nevada.

But of course every state sees itself as exceptional and worthy of exception. So Florida’s legislature determined that the Feb. 5 rule wasn’t set in concrete, and jumped ahead. “With an earlier presidential primary, Florida will now take its rightful place near the front of the line in determining the next leader of the Free World,” Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, said, with all familiar modesty, in a statement last week. He added patriotic and philosophic context for The Washington Post: “We can all get caught up in rules and regulation. But this country is about freedom and democracy. ‘Let freedom ring’ is my feeling on this.”

Frustrated national Republican and Democratic party officials figure Florida’s move may goad other states to jump ahead, as well. South Carolina may well be the first to jump; its Democratic primary was set for that same Jan. 29 and its Republican primary was to be Feb. 2. South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as saying his party would make sure it is the first Southern primary, no matter what date Florida chooses.

That, of course, will push New Hampshire politicos to move as well — because their state law decrees they will always hold their primary a week ahead of any other state’s. The Web site CQpolitics.com reported New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said he will set his state’s primary in 2007 to preserve his state’s first-primary tradition. And so it goes.

Over at the Republican and Democratic national committees, spokespeople warn that states that hold presidential contests earlier than national party rules allow will face penalties, as yet unspecified. Back in the capitals of jump-ahead states, officials act as if the penalty will be the political equivalent of a few lashes with a wet noodle. “The parties have lost control of the calendar, and not necessarily to the benefit of the American people,” Sen. John McCain’s top strategist, John Weaver, told The Washington Post. And that gets to the central question of why we all should care about the states’ mad rush to be first.

We should care because politicians are creating the worst of all possible election calendars, one not just frontloaded but also overloaded. Voters will be forced to make decisions without the sort of full examination that occurs when primary seasons are spread evenly through the first five months of an election year.

Candidates still trying to introduce themselves and their positions to voters will dash from coast to coast, inevitably spread too thin. They will have to rely more than ever on TV media campaigns built around glib sound bites, negative ads and pasted-on smiles. Even worse than the ones we usually endure.

So the candidates are raising more money than ever — no doubt making more deals with special interests than ever before.

But no matter how many millions the candidates raise, it won’t undo the cold truth: Unless the madness stops and the calendar is spread more evenly again, it is the voters who will wind up shortchanged.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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