Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Waiting for New Hampshire

This week, we celebrate another one of the more peculiar rituals of American politics - the New Hampshire primary, a tradition older even than the Iowa Caucuses and only minimally more logical. At this point in American history, it is hardly worth it to wonder why we ever allowed the nomination of presidential candidates to be held hostage by so absurd a system. It is what it is. So today, citizens of that very small and highly unrepresentative state will exercise their quadrennial privilege of monopolizing our attention and upending candidacies. At least two Presidents (Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968) have been deterred from running again because of poor showing in New Hampshire. Those of us above a certain age can well remember the excitement when henry Cabot Lodge, whi never even campaigned in New Hampshire (so much for all that direct, personal politics we always hear so much about) won a write-in victory. That was enough to make his resign his ambassadorship and come home, but not enough to derail Barry Goldwater's eventual triumph at the Cow Palace (the prelude to his and his party's disastrous defeat in November).

The Goldwater debacle is the classic example on the Right of our American fascination for promoting extremist candidates in the primary process only to dump them in the general election. The Left did the same with George McGovern in 1972. And a certain segment of New Hampshire Democrats seem poised to try to do that this year with Bernie Sanders, the senator from the neighboring state of Vermont who is favored to win the Democratic primary there. His nomination remains unlikely. But, if by some mischance it happened, it would, of course, be the one thing that could guarantee a Republican victory in November. Such is the nature of left-wing expressive politics - that some would rather nominate a charismatic figure who says all the right things (except in foreign affairs, a not insignificant failure in today's world), but is absolutely guaranteed to lose a general election because of his ideological and cultural extremism.

(Of course, not all Sanders' ideas are extreme - or even European. Free college, for example, is something we once had in this country. I am the beneficiary of tuition-free education at New York's City College, which was universally acknowledged then to be an excellent institution. That it is no longer free - and no longer excellent - is one of the many tragedies of our country's late 20th-century abandonment of its better self. Still, Sanders makes free college sound like a European idea - in a country where a majority of voters are descended from people who came to America to get away from Europe.)

Right-wing expressive politics did went for charisma and ideology with Goldwater in 1964. Since then, the Republicans has been better at subordinating their ideological passions enough to nominate plausible candidates whom one could actually imagine in the White House, and several of whom actually made it there (some thanks to the voters, one thanks to the Supreme Court's interference). But those days may be over.

In the current issue of New York magazine, Jonathan Chait outlines why a Donald Trump nomination might be better for the country than the nomination of any of his more ideologically Republican rivals: "Running for office as an exercise in ego gratification may not be as good a thing as running as a serious candidate with good ideas," Chait writes, "but it’s much better than running as a serious candidate with bad ideas."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now let's see what New Hampshire voters decide to make of all this!

No comments:

Post a Comment