I Hope My Vote Gets Counted in November
On Tuesday, March 2nd, I left my job in Virginia a little early. I wanted to make it to Mount Pleasant to cast my vote in the primary election, and wasn't in the mood to deal with the usual pleasures of the I-270 rush-hour logjams.
I pulled into the polling place parking lot in the late afternoon, signed in, picked up my smartcard, walked into my booth, and cast my votes. Having fulfilled my civic duty, I went home knowing I now had the right to vent.
Which is exactly what I'm going to do. No, I'm not talking about the lack of a paper trail from the machines (though that remains a major issue). I'm instead talking about the way the primary process essentially rendered my vote meaningless in the presidential race.
Flash back to January 19th. Governor Howard Dean, after several months as the Democrat's frontrunner in most national polls, turned in a disappointing showing in Iowa, placing third behind Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, and Senator John Edwards, of North Carolina.
By itself, this shouldn't have been that big a deal. One medium-sized rural midwestern state had held its caucuses, made its choices, and passed the baton to the 49 remaining states. The primary was as wide open as it had ever been.
But somehow, suddenly, the talking heads in the news media decided that the election was no longer about who was the most qualified candidate. It was no longer about the issues, or about who featured the most robust platform.
The election was now about vague, slippery concepts like "electability" and "momentum" and "looking presidential." And Senator Kerry was declared to be the man in possession of these qualities, ill-defined as they were.
To put an exclamation point behind these newfound priorities, the national news media turned Governor Dean's innocuous post-election rally speech into a public execution, distorting the context, altering the sound, and replaying the subsequent misleading video clip 638 times over the next week.
A strong, intelligent candidate - the best man the Democratic Party had offered in decades - was turned into a caricature. Meanwhile, the pundits and the talk shows fell all over themselves, fawning over Senator Kerry, declaring him the Man with the Mo.
Virtually absent from these discussions were little things like the candidate's stand on health care, education, jobs, the economy, and the Iraq war. It was all about "electability." Never mind that nobody ever stopped to actually define the word, much less explain how, exactly, Senator Kerry was more "electable" than Governor Dean.
Topping it all off were the constant media drumbeats urging Mr. Dean to drop out of the race - despite being first in the delegate count at this point in time. The news media bequeathed a barrage of free advertising upon Mr. Kerry - while burying Mr. Dean, and to a lesser extent, Mr. Edwards and Gen. Wesley Clark. This despite the fact that fewer than one-fifth of the delegates had been allocated - no matter, the race is over, thanks for playing.
Inevitably, Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark, declared dead by the news media and drawing next to no coverage, suffered in subsequent primaries. Senator Edwards fared a little better, but not much. By the time the Maryland primary rolled around, Governor Dean and General Clark were gone, and Senator Edwards was on life support.
So Democratic voters in Maryland, New York, California, and several other large, populous states were essentially denied a voice in their party's primary. Iowa and New Hampshire, with the complicity of the news media, got to make that choice for us.
Think about that: Two states, with an aggregate population of about four million, got to pick the next Democratic nominee. If that's not a warped system, then East Germany was a Democratic Republic.
There's plenty of blame to go around. The Howard Dean campaign deserves its share - it was extremely naive about the power of the established, non-internet news media, which hated Governor Dean with a passion. (Mr. Dean did say, after all, that he intended to break up the big media conglomerates.) DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, in designing the "compressed" primary schedule, helped make "momentum" a bigger factor than it had any right to be, making it much harder for a candidate to recover from a bad showing. (At least that spared us Sen. Joe Lieberman.) And the news media's framing of the process was nothing short of disgraceful and agenda-driven.
So what's the solution? Well, as unpopular as this idea might be in Des Moines and Manchester, it's probably time for a national primary date. Marylanders, Ohioans and Californians should enjoy the same pickings that Iowans do. Anything that makes the primary process more about issues and less about momentum should be pursued.
But Howard Dean had his impact. He dared to go after George W. Bush when no one else had the courage to - and rather than being punished for it, enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity. He implanted a desperately needed spine into the Democratic Party - indeed, John Kerry rose in the polls after he co-opted Governor Dean's message. He showed that the Bush-lite strategy, so disastrous for the Democrats in the 2002 midterms, needed a major overhaul.
And he showed that the Democrats need not worry about not being financially competitive against the Republican money machine, if they tap into their grass-roots support.
So now we've got John Kerry going up against President Bush. Those of us who are Democrats fervently hope that the "electability" claims made on Senator Kerry's behalf hold true, for the nation's sake. Thanks in large part to Howard Dean, he's off to a good start.
But I hope my vote gets counted in November. In more ways than one.