Washington — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist gave a speech in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month. He was to return to the state again this weekend, visiting Plymouth and Nashua. He's already announced he'll step down from the Senate next year, so he can only have one thing on his mind. It is not spring skiing.
The Democrats are thinking about New Hampshire, too, this month. Last week the party's awkwardly named Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling began its first deliberations. The commission, established before Howard Dean became the party's chairman, is examining whether the current campaign schedule is good for the party.
The commission is full of all manner of party grandees, too unwieldy to decide where to have lunch, let alone where to start the nominating process, and its agenda is dutiful to the extreme, including the summoning of a parade of political scientists with their spreadsheets. In the background is the question of whether the Democrats lost last year's election because the campaign began in Iowa and New Hampshire or because the party ended up with John F. Kerry of Massachusetts as its nominee.
Democrats seek key to success
No one knows the answer, of course, though the Democrats have the irritating habit of thinking that if they only find the right combination of party rules, the country will let the party rule. (There are other questions at issue, such as: Is the party out of synch with the country, or simply out of power because the Republicans did a better job of organizing Ohio?)
The mere fact that the party is asking these questions, however, is the result of years of single-minded effort by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan to rethink the nomination process, beginning with wresting the start of the nomination process away from Iowa and New Hampshire.
"If we started from scratch, we'd never design the system this way," says Thomas Mann, the Brookings Institution political scientist who testified before the commission in its first day of hearings.
But changing it is not so easy, as it turns out.
The Iowa and New Hampshire events have evolved into something of a tradition. The New Hampshire primary dates to 1912 (winner: no record survives) and its modern supremacy to 1952 (winners: Dwight Eisenhower over Robert A. Taft for the GOP, Estes Kefauver over President Harry Truman for the Democrats). Candidates map the trajectory of their campaigns with the expectation of having to spend weeks, even months, in New Hampshire. This tradition began in a time when New Hampshire was a quaint, colorful, isolated rural outpost and has endured through today, when it is increasingly suburban and plugged-in. Iowa has played its role for a considerably shorter period of time, but the expectation is just as deep.
Both states, moreover, have enacted laws requiring them to be first. That means that state officials are instructed to move the Iowa precinct caucuses or the New Hampshire primary to a date before any other state's. Someday the caucuses will be held on New Year's Day, at halftime during the Rose Bowl.
N.H. and Iowa wield clout
The two states have so beaten in the heads of politicians that there is almost no premium in changing the system. Dean's slide in Iowa began when someone dug out an old television clip, recorded in another country (Canada) in another century (1999), in which the Vermont governor expressed doubts about the wisdom of holding the first caucuses in Iowa. No one's going to make that mistake again. And the first question any candidate is asked at the nominating conventions a full cycle before the election is: What will you do to preserve the primacy of the New Hampshire primary four years from now? If these candidates won't stand up to the ethanol lobby in Iowa (another debilitating political tradition), do you expect them to stand up to the entire political culture of New Hampshire?
Now let's linger a moment on the politician's best friend, the missed opportunity. In this case it belongs to George W. Bush, late the governor of Texas, the man who lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 by 19 points. He went on to become president, of course, and his triumph gave him the great opportunity to take a stand and point out that since you don't have to win New Hampshire to win the nomination (and since he didn't even win New Hampshire in the general election campaign several months later), there's no reason to hang with this hoary tradition. Didn't happen, so in the end nothing happened.
Over the years I've had a grand time in Iowa, which I came to admire as a noble place, full of tasty tavern food, too, and in New Hampshire, where I love the lakes and mountains and the doughnuts at Lou's Restaurant in Hanover. It is true that the voters in both places take their roles seriously, but now the Democrats are looking at whether there is another way to do things.
Impetus for change
Which is why, for the first time in a generation, there is some reason to worry in Des Moines and Manchester. The Democrats know that their own voters in Iowa are more liberal than their voters in much of the rest of the country. They know that the broad issues that matter to voters in New Hampshire (health care and the economy) are important to their voters elsewhere, but that the specifics (the prospects for jobs for union families in the industrial heartland) are almost never examined.
But before the Democrats rush headlong into the question of where to showcase their contest, they should pause for a few moments on what their show-horse candidates say once they get the national attention. The debate over the schedule might be well under way, but the debate within the party about what it stands for has only begun. It is by far the more important fight.
-- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.