Primary concerns 

Long ago, when I was a not-very-bright kid, my brother and I would do something monumentally stupid whenever my father would drive the family car across a border. Suddenly, we would lunge into the front seat, sticking our arms out and screaming, competing to be the first to be in Ohio or Ontario.

This did have various downsides, including once nearly causing my poor old dad to run into a gasoline tanker. It also provoked angry yelling, sundry threats and, once, a good, hard startled whack across my fat little face.

However, moronic as that was, we kept doing it anyway.

So why am I telling you this? Because that story is the best way to explain how the major parties are selecting their presidential nominees.

Nationally, it's a mess; locally, the Michigan party leaders are just as bad, doing their best to bounce into the front seat in heavy traffic, even though the whole system is doing all of us more harm than good.

Let me explain. For decades, the process worked like this: Iowa voters began the pageant with a "caucus" to choose their convention delegates, which meant gatherings of the party faithful in homes, etc.

Next, tiny New Hampshire would have its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, in February or March. Then the focus would shift to other states, which had primaries and caucuses over the next weeks and months.

That gave the nation — the fraction of it that cared, anyway — time to examine these birds, kick their tires, weed out the wackos and losers. That process wasn't perfect, by any means; it gave us Richard Nixon.

Yet it gave us some winners too, and made a certain kind of sense.

Now what we have is idiots bouncing into the front seat even when that clearly threatens to knock us off the road. Here in Michigan, as of last weekend, Democrats and Republicans were close to a deal to hold a joint presidential primary Jan. 15. That would be before New Hampshire, at least as things now stand, and the day after Iowa's caucuses.

Why does Michigan want to move its primary up so early?

Simple: to have more clout. Michigan is far larger and far more typical of the country than Iowa or New Hampshire. If we move our primary up that early, we'll have a lot more influence. The presidential candidates will come here and campaign like mad. They'll buy millions of dollars in commercials; their entourages and the national press will have to come en masse, stay in our hotels, eat our food.

Michigan will be a player! So, what's wrong with that?

Well, plenty. Not so much for Republicans, but the Democratic National Committee has strict rules on this stuff. They say New Hampshire gets to hold the first primary; no ifs, ands or hanging chads. Speaking of which, Florida this year decided it would violate the rules, and plans to hold its primary Jan. 29.

The national Democrats are angry, and as I write, are planning to strip the Sunshine State of every one of its convention delegates.

What does that mean? Potentially, everything. We sometimes forget, but the primaries don't really select the nominees. The primaries select convention delegates who do the actual voting. We forget that, because for half a century, somebody has almost always had a majority of the delegates long before the conventions started. But that might not happen this time.

What if Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama all win enough delegates to prevent any of them from having a majority on the first ballot? Then it would be up to the delegates themselves.

And after the first ballot, most are then on their own. That would set up something more exciting politically than we have seen in a million years or so — and Florida would be completely shut out of the action.

But so would Michigan.

Think about it: If the Democrats strip Florida of its delegates for going so early, they are bound to do the same to Michigan for going two weeks earlier still! Once again, in a national competition, our state would be SOL.

Having said that — you can't blame the local parties too much for trying to move things up as much as possible. Other states have been doing this for years. Want proof of how screwed up things have become?

By the time most Americans start paying serious attention to the process of choosing a president, the whole thing may well be over. As it now stands, most of the biggest states vote in what's being called the "super-duper primary" on Feb. 5. That means that by the next morning, it easily could all be over.

That means tough luck for Ohio, the key state in the last election. It doesn't hold its primary until March 4. By then, it is likely to be totally irrelevant.

What might be even worse is if we have reason to suffer buyer's remorse: Let's say one of these candidates clinches the nomination of either party by Feb. 6, more than six months before the convention.

Two months later, we learn something horribly troubling about him or her — not enough to drive them out of the race, but something that would have caused us to make a different choice. Too late. We, and the party, are stuck with them.

How could we fix this? Simple: Pass legislation or otherwise set up rules to divide the states into four roughly equal groups. Let's say you do it geographically. Require the Eastern states to vote the first week in February; the Midwestern ones in March, Southern ones in April, and Western ones in May.

That would give us four months to study these characters in action, and come to some sort of more rational choice. Wouldn't that still give the states voting first more power? Perhaps — but every four years, rotate the order!

Alternatively, you wouldn't have to do it geographically. Maybe you put together four mixed groups of states scattered across the nation. That would be even better from the standpoint of fairness.

But instead, we have an untidy mess. What seems likely to happen now in Michigan is a super-early primary that happens, ironically, on Martin Luther King's birthday, when most of us are still recovering from the holidays.

The Michigan Senate has already passed a bill establishing the Jan. 15 primary. The House is expected to go along, after some squabbling. If for some reason it doesn't, and the primary falls apart, Democrats will select their delegates in one of their usual hard-to-find caucuses Feb. 9, which are designed to give us the candidate the party bosses, not the voters, want.

Republicans would then forget this democracy nonsense entirely, and select their delegates themselves, at a state convention Jan. 24-25.

So if it gets to be October, and you face, once again, a choice between two dreary candidates, neither of whom is ready to end the war, you'll know why.

What you should do now is let your leaders know that you want a voice in the process, and you want a process that makes sense.

They'll listen, if you make enough noise.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]

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