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Nation’s Presidential Primary Calendar is a Political Tragedy

In less than a year, Iowa will kick off the voting for the major parties’ presidential nominations. A month later, the race may be effectively over — long before most states vote. As a result we have almost unwittingly allowed the evolution of a system for nominating our next president that leaves most Americans out of the process, emphasizing money, surface appearances and media appeal over careful analysis. This fact reflects a dangerous lapse on the part of both national political parties.

The problem is that every state wants to be first on the presidential nomination calendar. Why not? Being first means that all of the candidates desperately want to win your state to claim the mantle as the frontrunner. That not only gives your state a great deal of free media attention, but a lot of cash as reporters and camera operators join candidates, staff and countless volunteers rushing back and forth in their desperate quest for that critical “one more vote.” Being later in the season (which now may effectively mean having your primary or caucus anytime after February) means being ignored by the candidates, for by then, one of them has locked up the nomination, the campaign is over and your vote is meaningless.

Ironically, voters in these few privileged states in the early contests will have as many as a dozen candidates from which to choose. For the rest of us, for the vast majority of Americans, there will be no choice at all … until November, when the choice is solely between the two major-party nominees whom the privileged have chosen for the rest of us.

The refusal to address this inexcusable situation is but a reflection of the fact that too many political “leaders” these days are not willing to lead on matters that require the taking of risk. It is no challenge to act on “easy” or “popular” matters, for one can do so by simply taking advantage of one’s position as a member of the majority party. Republicans did so in the past six years, Democrats will do so the next two.

Taking action on hard matters, on the other hand, can happen only when there is bipartisan determination to do so. That requires members in both parties to lay aside partisan differences, cross the political aisle and work with their counterparts to craft a solution in the national, as opposed to their parochial, interest. That the two national parties remain unable or unwilling to prevent our steady slide into this dangerously unrepresentative “devil take the hindmost” presidential nomination system is shameful.

A coordinated change to the rules and bylaws of the two major political parties is thus essential. Admittedly, cooperation does not come naturally to the parties, and yes, cooperation entails political risks. Yet six years ago, virtually every former chairman of the Republican National Committee worked as part of a national commission of political leaders to address this need. We crafted something we called the Delaware plan, which would revamp the schedule to have small states vote first, then gradually larger states, but with the most delegates awarded in the final set of primaries to give big states a central role as well. More time for thoughtful consideration by all voters, more opportunity for lesser-known candidates to establish their credentials, more one-on-one contact, less emphasis on big money at the outset, less danger of denying the later states a voice — all this and more, not a bad combination.

Importantly, many thoughtful Democratic leaders were very much involved in working alongside us. The effort collapsed when I was unable to put the matter to the 2000 Republican National Convention — for reasons largely unrelated to the subject at hand. Now the California Democratic Party has embraced the American plan, a proposal with a similar goal that regularly changes the order of primaries and gives large-population states a shot at an earlier primary. In sum, the subject is not yet dead, but it clearly remains on life support.

I still like the Delaware plan as being the most equitable to all states, and the one that gives all our citizens a full voice in the selection of our political leaders. Yet almost any rational proposal would result in a much better balance than today’s increasingly broken system, one that will within the next 12 months disenfranchise the majority of the American people from the nominations process of both major parties. Inexcusable? Yes, absolutely.

The bottom line: Continued inaction is unworthy of this nation, much less of our two great parties.

Bill Brock is a former Republican Senator from Tennessee.

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