Friday, August 25, 2006

The GOP message: Maybe we're not so great, but (insert enemy name) is even worse!

This morning I was catching up on my backlogged emails (mostly marketing junk, political propaganda, and random diatribes) when I chanced upon a standard submission from the Republican National Committee. It began this way:

“WHO IS MARKOS MOULITSAS ZUNIGA? A Partisan ‘Nutroot’ Who Turned His Hate-Filled Blog Daily Kos Into A Leadership Post In The Democrat Party.”

(By the way, this business about the "Democrat" party, a label clearly intended as a pejorative, is getting a little old. Wouldn't it sound equally dumb for the Democrats to refer to their opponents as the "Repub" party?)

Anyway, the email proceeded, at considerable length, to attack the blog proprietor for various alleged financial, political, and ideological sins. The GOP even attacked him for going on vacation in El Salvador, although I was unaware that El Salvador had been deemed by the governing party to be an unacceptable locale for the expenditure of leisure funds.

What’s most instructive here is not the bill of particulars amassed against a blogger whom most Americans still probably haven’t heard of; rather, it’s the fact that GOP headquarters opted to launch the attack at all. And the reason is clear: at a time when the party is down in the polls, and in danger of losing at least one chamber on Capitol Hill this November, the GOP is casting around for an enemy, any enemy, who might rile up the conservative base voters and get them out to the polls en masse.

It’s easy to see why the Republicans are worried. The Pew Research Center pollsters report that Democrats are 16 points more likely than Republicans to say that they are pumped up to vote this November; moreover, just 42 percent of Republicans and GOP-friendly independents are feeling good about the party’s track record in power -- and that’s down nearly 20 points from two years ago.

All the more reason to target somebody who might get the base to forget its beefs with President Bush and the GOP Congress, and instead direct its anger at the other camp. Most recently, the party has tried out a number of prospects: Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont (soft on terrorists), Nancy Pelosi (depicted in party emails as a wide-eyed zombie), Howard Dean (depicted in full scream mode), and, of course, the old reliable, Michael Moore (depicted in full scruffy mode). Now they’re trying out a blogger.

I suppose the big question, however, is whether conservative base voters on the GOP mailing list will now be motivated to forget their grievances about the GOP Congress’ red-ink budgets, as well as the president’s record on Katrina and Iraq...and be roused to storm the polls and strike down all Democratic candidates just because a liberal blogger says things like (gasp) "the French are right" and charges advertisers (gasp) $2400 a week for the most visible position on his home page.

Here’s how GOP strategist Rich Galen sees the November election (he predicts modest Democratic gains, but no takeover): “People will go into the polls somewhere between ambivalent with, and angry at, Republicans in the Congress. But, as they prepare to pull the lever, or press the button, or punch out the chad they (will) say to themselves, ‘I'm not happy with these guys, but I am very uncomfortable with the notion of putting the Sharpton wing of the Democratic Party in charge of national security.’”

Move over, Kos. In the hunt for enemies who might change the subject, there’s always Al and MoveOn. But the GOP’s big problem is that even some of their own incumbents don’t seem to believe that it’s possible to change the subject, given the current political climate.

Witness the latest news from vulnerable Connecticut congressman Christopher Shays -- who now says that he plans to unveil a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq. In a conference call yesterday, he said: “Our troops cannot be there indefinitely. We should be able to tell the American people what kind of timeline we can have to begin to draw down our troops.”

That’s precisely the kind of talk that GOP headquarters is attacking, when uttered by the likes of Ned Lamont...or the proprietor of Daily Kos. This autumn, it may be tough for the GOP to change the subject when its friends start talking like its foes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Straight talk and the art of counter-pandering

It’s fascinating these days to watch the reputed straight-talker as he tailors his tongue to the political exigencies of the moment.

John McCain, with his eye on the '08 GOP nod, has been toiling for months on his top priority task -- making friends with all the conservatives who treated him like dirt during the '00 campaign. But clearly he and his handlers fear that Operation Pander has the potential to mess with his maverick image, and sour the old McCainiacs who see him as a font of integrity.

This is one of those times.

To be an effective panderer, McCain must repeatedly declare unswerving devotion to President Bush, because nothing is more prized by the Bush loyalists than loyalty itself. The problem, however, is that Bush loyalists now comprise no more than 1/3 of the general population, and the share of Americans who dislike Bush's handling of the Iraq war is now in the neighborhood of 65 percent.

That leaves the straight-talker with two options: He can keep pandering, or he can retool the talk. He has chosen the latter.

In Ohio the other day, McCain gave a stump speech assailing the execution of the Iraq war that could easily have been delivered by Hillary Clinton. The key passages:

""I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required. 'Stuff happens,' 'mission accomplished,' 'last throes,' 'a few dead-enders.' I'm just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be....(That kind of talk) has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking."

What's with all the sarcasm from McCain, all of a sudden? "Stuff happens" was one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's gems, his dismissive shrug at critics who were questioning why the war was going badly. "Mission accomplished"...well, you all know that one. "Last throes"...again, you're undoubtedly familiar with Vice President Cheney's predictive track record. How about "dead-enders?" That was another Rumsfeld verbal misfire.

By the way, McCain may wish to pin all the blame on the Bush administration for assuring the public that the war would be a day at the beach, but he too wore rose-colored glasses on occasion. On MSNBC's Hardball, on the eve of war in 2003, Chris Matthews asked McCain, "Are you one of those who holds up an optimistic view of the post-war scene? Do you believe that the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?" And McCain replied: "Absolutely. Absolutely." Two weeks later, McCain was back on the show and said that "there’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there’s no doubt in my mind, once these (remaining terrorists) are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."

But I digress. Clearly there is a concern among McCain's advisers that his ongoing displays of slavish loyalty to the Bush team could backfire with the moderate voters who liked him in the past. Yes he needs to prove his bona fides to the right-leaning activists who dominate the GOP, but no politician wants to be seriously out of sync with mainstream public opinion. Hence, the recalibrated straight talk. It's also noteworthy that it happened in Ohio, where support for Bush and the war has tanked, and where Republican Senator Mike DeWine (for whom McCain was campaigning) is ranked high on the list of endangered '06 incumbents.

And his outburst comes during the same week that the New York Times, clearly with the help or acquiesence of the McCain team, listed some of the foreign policy mavens who seem poised to join McCain's nascent brain trust. The names included a trio of Iraq war skeptics: Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to Bush's father; ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Powell deputy Richard Armitage.

So is McCain tacking back toward true independence? Not necessarily. He has prominent neoconservative pals as well, notably William Kristol. The bottom line is that McCain is probably just hedging his bets, covering all bases, doing the pander while trying to protect his image and vice versa. That purported Straight Talk Express will need to chart many crooked paths on the road to power.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Signs of trouble: soldiers, Santorum, and Scarborough

Here's an announcement that is sure to underscore the public's general pessimism about the Iraq conflict, further complicate President Bush's efforts to regain his former popularity as a war leader, and discomfit congressional Republicans who are trying to win re-election in November:

The U.S. military, already severely strained by the war, is being forced to take drastic steps to put enough soldiers back in the field. The Marines have now decided to call up former active-duty members -- people now classified as reservists, who thought that their overseas service was over -- and ship them back to the war, because apparently there aren't enough volunteers anymore who want to risk their lives for Bush's "freedom agenda."

It is hardly the exclusive province of "Defeatocrats" (as the Bush political team now calls Democrats) to argue these days that the military is being stretched too thin by the administration's stay-the-course policies.

As referenced here, military expert Frederick Kagan at the conservative American Enterprise Institute says that the Marines' decision "is one of an avalanche of symptoms that the ground forces are overstretched by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan." Recently, meanwhile, a Pentagon study conducted by Army Lt. Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that the U.S. military is stretched into a "thin green line." In the spring of 2005, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a similar warning in congressional testimony, and, during the previous December, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, head of the Army Reserve, wrote a letter to colleagues expressing "deepening concern" about the readiness of his 200,000 solidiers, who were, in his words, "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

The political danger for Bush and the GOP is that these pressures on the military could further sour the mood of military families and friends -- in other words, people who normally would be inclined to support a wartime president and his party.

The biggest GOP fear this year is that its base will not motivated; it won't help the party if voters in military communities are frustrated. Meanwhile, the general public mood is already downbeat; in a new poll released last week, the Pew Research Center found record-high pessimisim about the war. Fifty-five percent now say the war isn't going well (that stat was 44 percent last January), and, by a margin of 52 to 41 percent, most Americans want to set a timetable for troop withdrawal. The Marines' decision certainly won't nudge those numbers in Bush's favor.


Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr., combatants in the nation's marquee '06 Senate race (unless we count Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont), have agreed to debate at least four times, starting on Labor Day. Swell. There goes my holiday barbecue. But seriously, those events should at least help Pennsylvania voters figure out whether they really want to fire Santorum in November.

Democrat Casey for many months has hewed to a strategy of saying as little as possible, and saying it soporifically, with the apparent intent of keeping the spotlight on Santorum -- in the hopes that Santorum's devotion to Bush would be sufficient ammo. The debates will change that dynamic. Casey will have to show up on the same stage with an opponent who is far more verbally nimble than he is, and he will be pressed to thrust and parry in ways that thus far he has been able to avoid. This visual contrast might not work to Casey's benefit; the potential result could be a tighter race.

On the other hand, I generally wonder whether debates matter all that much. Santorum still has to battle against a mood that bodes ill for Republicans, and even the conservative Washington Times reports that his own base is restive and unenthused, and not just because of the GOP's high-spending ways on Capitol Hill. At home, Santorum's '04 support for Arlen Specter, at a time when that moderate senator was being challenged in a primary by a conservative upstart, still ticks off a lot of conservatives. The Washington Times quoted Charlie Clift, a longtime Santorum supporter in suburban Philadelphia:

"'I still feel the knife in my back from (2004),'" Mr. Clift said. 'We worked very hard for Pat Toomey. All [Mr. Santorum] had to do was keep his mouth shut, and we'd all be fat, dumb and happy supporting him right now. I won't lift a finger to help him....I'm not pulling the Santorum lever this time. I'll write my own name in before I'll vote for him.'"


And speaking of restive conservatives, let's check in with former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC show host who infuriated the White House last week by running a segment entitled, "Is Bush an Idiot?" And he wasn't kidding, as evidenced by this new Salon interview that was posted today. The key excerpt:

"A lot of Republican loyalists are unhappy. But again, the only thing I did was ask publicly what a lot of conservatives have been saying privately since Katrina and the Harriet Miers nomination....staying in power is (deemed to be) more important than staying true to the values that put you in power in the first place. Again, there are more and more conservatives behind the scenes that are voicing concerns, but most of them are afraid to say anything publicly, because they know if they do they'll be branded as traitors to the cause."

The question is, will these concerns be reflected in the voting (or non-voting) on election day? Control of Congress may well hinge on that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A conversation with Chris Dodd

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, a former national Democratic chairman and prospective ‘08 presidential candidate, stopped in Philadelphia yesterday to stump for some House candidates and seed some terrain for himself. His people asked if I was interested in a sitdown, and I said sure. With Democrats trying to run this fall as strong national security stewards, even while being undercut by independent hawk (and Dodd colleague) Joe Lieberman, it seemed worthwhile to sit on a hotel terrace and kick this stuff around.

I asked whether he thought that his friend Lieberman would complicate the Democrats’ task this fall by messing with the party message. Lieberman, in the early days of his independent bid to retain his Senate seat, has been echoing the Bush-Cheney argument that liberal Democrats are soft on terrorists. Isn’t Dodd concerned about that?

“Not at all,” he said, which is what we would expect him to say. Yet he did appear genuinely confident that Lieberman and his new best friends are on the wrong side of the issue, given the fact that the ongoing woes in Iraq have nearly erased the traditionally lopsided GOP advantage on national security. Dodd said, “If I was advising Joe, I’d say, ‘This (Democrats are softies charge) is not a good argument to make. Get back to talking about being a good senator, and having good constituent services.’” He thinks that Lieberman’s embrace of the Bush administration line is “politically dangerous.”

Dodd made these remarks, however, shortly before the release of the latest USA Today-Gallup poll that suggests a Bush bounce in the aftermath of the terrorist arrests in London. The survey reports that 55 percent of Americans like the way Bush is handling the terrorism issue, with 43 percent dissenting. And 67 percent say they have a great deal or moderate amount of confidence in the Bush administration’s ability to protect Americans from future attacks. Today I spoke to one Republican pollster who is somewhat wary about those rosy numbers, yet it’s also true that, in recent weeks, CBS News and Newsweek polls have both reported that Republicans are still (narrowly) preferred over the Democrats as protectors of the homeland.

The wiretap issue is also a potential Democratic vulnerability. It’s noteworthy that most prominent Democrats were mute last week when a federal judge ruled that Bush’s warrantless surveillance program was in violation of the U.S. Constitution and statutory law. Only two ‘08 hopefuls, John Kerry and Russ Feingold, praised the ruling. Clearly there’s a fear that standing up for civil liberties is a loser on the stump, especially when pitted against visceral concerns about personal safety.

I asked Dodd about that fear. He said: “It takes several sentences to explain to people what the Democratic position is” -- and that’s an eternity in today’s sound bite politics. Dodd explained that, yes, Democrats think that wiretaps are essential in the war on terror, but that, no, they should not to be conducted without warrants or without approval from the special federal court established by law in 1978...“See, I’ve already taken several sentences to explain it to you,” he said. “That’s one reason why Democrats aren’t anxious to jump on that issue.” He suggested that perhaps it’s preferable to just let the judge’s ruling speak for itself. As Dodd sees it, “Sometimes the best sermon is not to say anything.”

But, in reality, saying nothing is probably not an option. The GOP message machine is already road-testing one of its autumn accusations -- that Democrats are wimps who won’t use all the necessary tools to combat terrorists -- and that will warrant a response. So how would Dodd, as an ‘08 hopeful trying to earn IOUs in ‘06, boil down those sentences?

Dodd replied: “Begin the conversation by saying, ‘We’ll do everything to be secure, but the idea of letting the president do whatever he wants to is dangerous.’ Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think so.”

Actually, there are tougher issues for Dodd right now, most notably some of his bona fides as a prospective presidential candidate. The shorthand goes like this: Why would the Democrats want to nominate another New England liberal senator, just two years after John Kerry tanked? And why indeed would they want to nominate a senator at all, given the thousands of floor and committee votes that are ripe for GOP cherry-picking, and given the fact that only one sitting Democratic senator (JFK in 1960) has ever captured the White House?

Dodd, a Senate denizen since 1981, thinks that, post-9/11, voters want to see experience and a track record; therefore, “the liability becomes an asset in this window (of time).” As for his Connecticut pedigree, he thinks it’s unfair to penalize a northerner: “We’ve done Jimmy Carter and Al Gore (losers in 1980 and 2000, respectively), yet I don’t hear people saying we shouldn’t have another southerner.”

He argues, “People don’t lose because of where they’re from. They lose because they don’t connect with (voters)...The voter wants to know, ‘does this individual know what I’m going through?’..You either have that (empathy) or you don’t.” A presidential campaign, he said, “is not just rational, it’s primal...If people don’t like you, they won’t care what your ideas are.”

Those remarks can easily be read as knocks on Kerry and Gore; neither of those guys would ever win the award for Mr. Warmth. Nor would Hillary Clinton be a contender for Ms. Warmth; on this score, she lacks her husband’s skills. Dodd, by reputation a more garrulous people person, clearly thinks he can better connect with the average citizen’s hopes and pains (notwithstanding his 31 years on Capitol Hill). He tried an historical analogy, telling the story about how a mourner for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 had remarked, “I didn’t know him, but he knew me.” (House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi uses the same story in speeches.)

But the ‘06 campaign takes precedent for now, and that brought me back to the Joe Lieberman factor. Here’s a guy who is not only using the Bush-Cheney message, but, in his active trolling for Republican votes in Connecticut, he has just hired, as his pollster, the veteran Republican Neil Newhouse, whose top clients include Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum. So I asked the devil’s advocate question: What are the Democrats going to do about that? If Lieberman wins re-election, why would you Senate Democrats allow him to caucus with you?

Because, he essentially replied, winning power takes precedence over holding grudges, and pragmatism trumps purity. If Lieberman’s presence in the caucus gives the Democrats the one-vote margin for taking power in the Senate, then nothing else matters.“Hey, we used to want (pro-Bush Democrat) Zell Miller to caucus with us,” said Dodd. “If we can get a Senate majority, then I get to be chairman of the Banking Committee...And then we can really slow those (Republicans) down.”

Allen upbraided, Romney absolved

A couple quick and telling observations about GOP '08 hopefuls George Allen and Mitt Romney, courtesy of the conservative media:

1. On the Wall Street Journal website today, Brendan Miniter tackles Allen's "macaca" misadventure (which I have written about here and here), and explains why it's politically important that Allen poked fun at a dark-skinned man standing in an all-white crowd, calling him a name that is a synonym for a monkey. Miniter sees the incident as an important character issue:

"(Virginia senator) Allen's problem is neither that he is a vicious campaigner nor that he is a modern-day George Wallace. Rather, it is that for more than two decades in state and federal office, he has displayed a dismaying indifference to his adoptive state's racial history. And it is this political tone-deafness that is now weighing down his political future with Southern baggage....A legacy of the South's long struggle with racism is that today its elected officials must take a stand on racially sensitive issues. What Mr. Allen is finding out is the same thing Trent Lott learned a few years ago: that Southern politicians who don't appreciate the sensitivity of race issues may pay a political price."

Allen has also slid in the polls since this incident occurred. His '08 prospects appear damaged.

2. On a lighter note, Kate O'Beirne of the National Review came up with his factoid about Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. It's a twist on what I reported here, about the Christian conservative discomfort with Romney's Mormon faith. Note the irony at the close of O'Beirne's item:

"The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Governor Mitt Romney's great-grandfather had multiple wives, and two great-great grandfathers had 10 wives each. The article allows that Romney 'is a confirmed monogamist of nearly four decades and polygamy has been absent from his family going back two generations.' While some might note the upside of generously sharing those handsome Romney genes in the past, current history is noteworthy. Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and George Allen, the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Today's shootout at Credibility Gap

President Bush held a press conference this morning, and more verbal adventures ensued. The spirits of Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) are alive and well.

While seeking to promote his "freedom agenda" for Iraq and the Middle East, he again repeated his favorite talking point (also heard in 2003, 2004, 2005, and at other times in 2006) about how he was inspired to invade Iraq because of what happened in America on Sept. 11, 2001. As he put it this morning, "The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

Suddenly, a journalist from the reality-based community asked a question. Here's the exchange:

Q: "What did Iraq have to do with it?"
BUSH: "What did Iraq have to do with what?"
Q: "The attack on the World Trade Center."
BUSH: "Nothing..."

Well, that's very interesting...given the fact that Dick Cheney and other Bush war planners repeatedly and publicly sought to convince Americans that Iraq was very much involved. Cheney went on Sunday morning TV with his claim (long since disproved by intelligence officials) that one of the terrorists who crashed into the World Trade Center was seen meeting in Prague with a Saddam Hussein agent. Cheney and company were so successful with their rhetorical linkage that, according to the polls, more than 40 percent of the public wound up thinking that Hussein had helped plan the attacks.

But let's return to what Bush said today. Here's his entire answer:

"Nothing. Except it’s part of -- and nobody has suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- Iraq -- the lesson of September 11th is take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody’s ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq."

Nobody's ever "suggested" it? Another stunner. Bush himself has "suggested" it on many occasions. For instance, during a press conference on the eve of the war, while talking about Saddam, he reportedly invoked Sept. 11 eight times.

The conclusion is inescapable: By accident or design, Bush is now issuing factually-challenged denials about his previous factually-challenged assertions. His credibility woes, as consistently measured by the polls over the past year, aren't likely to improve in the wake of such behavior.

Meanwhile, one noteworthy sidebar on the press conference: At another point, while discussing Iraq, Bush said, "Sometimes I'm frustrated...War is not a joy."

Oh, so now he is frustrated?

Poor Tony Snow. Last week, after press reports circulated that the president had conveyed frustration about Iraq in a private meeting with foreign policy experts, press secretary Snow rushed into the breach to insist that the president was not frustrated at all (a word that might convey a sense of doubt, even weakness); rather, he said the president was determined (stronger word, more resolute).

Well, so much for last week's flackery. It can't be fun to have the boss hang you out to dry.

The Dems' message to New Hampshire: what makes you so special, anyway?

As a scribe who has weathered the winter indignities of New Hampshire during the last four presidential primary seasons, I can vouch for the storied charms of the Granite State, and especially its flinty citizens, who take quite seriously their longstanding responsibility of getting up close and personal with the White House hopefuls, right at the starting gate.

It's a fair bet that many of my colleagues feel much the same way about the state's traditional first-in-the-nation status, although admittedly we also have a selfish interest in saying so. New Hampshire is a great place for a journalist working on the ground. Most of the campaigning takes place in the populous southern zone, around cities like Manchester and Concord and Portsmouth, which means that (weather permitting) most events are generally no more than 45 minutes away from each other, and that often translates into plenty of time to file a story and still hit Manchester at a decent hour for a decent dinner.

Maybe this is why columnist Willam Safire, a decade ago, referred to the New Hampshire primary as "a media-saturated joke," and its citizens as "overexposed, overpolled." No matter. We kept coming anyway, because the candidates kept coming. And because it was fun to have impromptu reunions at the Wayfarer Hotel bar.

Neverthleless, it's beyond debate that, demographically speaking, New Hampshire does not reflect the diversity of America. Roughly 0.8 percent of the population is African American, and another 2.1 percent are Hispanic. The state boasts about 1.2 million residents, and that's about the same number who live just in the city of San Diego.

And for Democrats in particular, the state's demographics are truly problematical. It's not just the low percentage of blacks and Hispanics. It's also the fact that traditional blue-collar and working-class voters are becoming more scarce in a state that has been trending toward white-collar, high-tech, service-worker affluence. How can Democratic presidential candidates prove their national appeal to blue-collar voters when, in New Hampshire, they first have to tailor their appeal to upscale, well-educated, latte-sipping suburban Volvo drivers?

Which brings me to the decision announced this past weekend by the Democratic National Committee to dilute New Hampshire's starting-gate status by crowding the early '08 primary calendar with early events in Nevada and South Carolina. Nevada is increasingly populated by working-class and lower-middle-class Hispanics; many are also union members, whereas unions are relatively weak in New Hampshire. As for South Carolina, a huge percentage of the likely Democratic primary electorate in that state -- perhaps 40 percent -- is African American.

New Hampshire is already squawking about this blow to its honor, and its secretary of state is now threatening to move the '08 primary date perhaps into 2007, so that it can be alone without the interlopers crowding it. (Ego is not the sole reason, of course. Money talks, too. If fewer candidate entourages and fewer journalists show up, the state's economy takes a hit. In the 2000 primary season, New Hampshire reportedly raked in $264 million from its visitors.)

What the state's promoters generally don't like to acknowledge, however, is that, aside from the demographic issues, an important myth about the New Hampshire primary has been shattered in recent elections. In the old days, it used to be said that nobody gets elected president in November without first winning New Hampshire back at the starting gate. Not true anymore. Bill Clinton finished second in the '92 Democratic primary, but won the presidency. George W. Bush finished second in the '00 GOP primary, losing by 18 percentage points, but won the presidency. Other candidates have lost the New Hampshire primary and still won their party's nomination; witness Democrats George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984.

So the Democratic National Committee sought this weekend to put New Hampshire in a more realistic perspective. Whether they have done so in the most rational fashion, however, is another issue entirely. By crowding those early weeks with two extra contests -- now there will be four, including the unrepresentative Iowa caucuses -- the Democrats have merely further "front-loaded" the calendar, thereby putting even more pressure on the candidates to raise exorbitant amounts of money, this year and next, just to buy into the accelerated process, with its farflung geography. That format is a serious threat to New Hampshire's best asset: its retail politics, as exemplified by the "town hall" events where voters get to quiz the candidates in detail.

In the best of all possible worlds (to quote Candide), the parties would pick out one demographically representative state and put the first primary there. I nominate Missouri -- the classic swing state of the heartland. It's 26 percent blue collar, 11 percent black, big cities, small towns, and since 1900 it has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every single election except for one time (1956). Granted, it's population is only about two percent Hispanic....Well, no wonder the Democrats still can't figure out how to come up with the ideal calendar. Who can?