Thursday, January 25, 2007

Greasing the skids for the richest candidates

Any presidential candidate who lacks star power and celebrity cachet will not be happy about the momentous changes soon to be wrought upon the ’08 primary season.

For those hopefuls without deep pockets or high name ID (Democrats Tom Vilsack and Christopher Dodd, for instance), it’s not good news that four big, delegate-rich states – New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, and California – now seem poised to move their primaries to the earliest possible date on the calendar, Feb. 5, hard on the heels of the opening contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Which means that the nominees may well be known by the first week in February. (Memo to any of my Pennsylvania readers who might wish to play a role in the primary season: Your votes will be rendered more meaningless than ever.)

This latest manifestation of the phenomenon known as “front-loading” means that all White House aspirants will be forced to run a punishing gauntlet that seems guaranteed to kill off virtually everyone who is not prodigiously financed and universally known.

Imagine the task that apparently lies ahead: Candidates will have to spend a small fortune just to do well in the crucial opening round, because a poor showing in those small states will spell certain doom – and then, without respite or time to raise new money, they will have to switch gears and immediately compete in some of the most expensive media markets in the nation. (Take New Jersey, for example. There are no network affiliates in New Jersey. To run TV ads there, candidates have to book time on the stations located in New York City and Philadelphia.) And that doesn’t even include all the travel, as candidates and their entourages hurl their weary bodies from tarmac to tarmac, coast to coast.

This “front-loading” problem – in which late-calendar states feel compelled to move up their dates in order to gain some clout and attention, not to mention economic benefit – has been around for nearly a quarter century, and it keeps getting worse. Political experts keep lamenting the problem at symposia, and the political parties keep insisting that they will bring order to the calendar by spreading out the contests. To no avail. Indeed, the situation right now is so fluid (the less charitable word is chaotic) that some of those big states might even try to go earlier than Feb. 5.

It seems downright quaint to talk about 1992, when political observers were lamenting the fact that Bill Clinton had virtually clinched the Democratic nomination at such an early point in the calendar....April 7. That was considered outrageous, a betrayal of the traditional weeding-out process that once stretched from late winter to early June. (One of the big reasons why upstart Ronald Reagan nearly derailed President Gerald Ford during the '76 primaries was because there were as many as three weeks between each major primary, thereby allowing Reagan to reload and raise more money in order to keep going.)

The calendar was further compressed in 1996, and the parties were widely blamed for not doing enough to stop the front-loading. In truth, however, they didn't want to stop it. As Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, explained to me in January of that year, "The national parties like the idea. They've had an increasing desire to get behind a single candidate earlier in the game, to come to a conclusion earlier, to try and prevent the eventual winner from suffering a protracted death-by-a-thousand-cuts. The parties don't want long, fratricidal seasons that leave people embittered. So the idea is, foreclose the possibility of last-minute candidacies, limit the field."

So it goes for 2008. And no wonder the public financing of presidential campaigns is in its last throes (as I wrote here two days ago). Given the fact that accelerated front-loading requires candidates to spend as much money as possible in a large number of states at the earliest point in the calendar, there’s little incentive to accept public money for the primary season – because such acceptance requires the candidates to obey a spending ceiling. How is it possible to compete effectively in eight states between mid-January and early February, when hampered by a spending ceiling?

Actually, let me amend that last paragraph: There’s little incentive for celebrity candidates with universal name ID to play by the public-financing rules.

Those who have the requisite fund-raising prowess to opt out of the reform process – notably Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and perhaps John Edwards – seem best positioned to survive the front-loaded calendar. Those lesser-known candidates who have no choice but to accept the public money are not nearly as well positioned to compete and survive. In politics, as in society as a whole, the gap between rich and poor appears to be widening.

Which brings me to John Kerry, awkward segue notwithstanding.

All the tea leaves were telling him to forego another bid: Kerry is still being blamed by the Democratic rank and file for losing a winnable election (indeed, Democrats are not known for giving their losers a second chance; that hasn’t happened since Adlai Stevenson got the party nod in 1956). Kerry can’t compete for money with the Clinton juggernaut. Kerry can’t bond with a crowd as well as Obama. And the accelerated front-loading of the calendar would have aggravated all these deficiencies. (Kerry's people insisted yesterday that his decision was not motivated by his miserable poll ranking. Yeah, right.)

But, for me, what really seals Kerry’s fate as yesterday’s guy is the rise of Jim Webb. The new Virginia senator has swiped Kerry’s market niche, as the Democrat who can best combine war vet credentials and effective political rhetoric. As he demonstrated in his televised rebuttal to the State of the Union speech, Webb (who, unlike Kerry, opposed the Iraq war from the outset) can state his point of view in simple declarative language, devoid of any Kerryesque qualifiers:

“The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the Army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command....we are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable – and predicted - disarray that has followed."

If Kerry can’t even win the Senate competition for the title of “macho Democrat,” then it’s tough to see how he would fare any better in a presidential race.

Jay Leno last night alluded to the fact that Kerry had correctly detected the lack of a public groundswell for his return. He joked, “Finally – a politician who listens to the American people!” Indeed, it can at least be argued that, unlike the man who beat him in 2004, Kerry does seem capable of recognizing and processing factual reality.