Primary Choler

Chatterbox has a new political cause. This week California Gov. Pete Wilson took the final step to put a referendum on the state ballot this November suspending the Golden State’s new open-primary law for the 2000 presidential primaries. Chatterbox urges all right-and-left-thinking Californians to vote a resounding “no.”

Since this crusade seems a bit arcane even for Chatterbox, a little explanation is in order. Both the Democrats and Republicans have national party rules barring cross-over voting in presidential primaries, which means that California has to modify its election law to limit participation to registered party members in order to hold valid presidential primaries. Unless this referendum passes, California will be forced to select all its presidential delegates at old-fashioned state party conventions. In an era when primaries seem like the only democratic way to choose a presidential nominee, why is Chatterbox so resolutely opposing the forces of truth, justice, and the American Way?

Here’s the problem if California holds a presidential primary. The state has already agreed to move its primary date to early March, just after New Hampshire’s, guaranteeing that the 2000 presidential race will be a front-loaded frenzy in which the nominees will be selected in a dizzying blur of non-stop primary contests. New York, under the wise tutelage of that selfless political leader Al D’Amato, is poised to also hold an early primary. What this means is that only candidates who can raise upwards of $30 million before New Hampshire have a chance of competing in this national pinball game. So you can forget about the chances of come-from-behind contenders like Bill Bradley, Bob Kerrey, or Paul Wellstone on the Democratic side, along with such second-tier GOP candidates as the oft-praised John McCain, right-wing zealot John Ashcroft, and the indefatigable Lamar! Alexander. Al Gore would romp to the Democratic nomination, unless Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is willing to dip into the fortune of his wife, Teresa Heinz, to challenge him. The Republican race would quickly come down to a tax-cutting battle between the anointed George W. Bush and the free-spending Steve Forbes.

Oy, what a debacle for democracy. Oy, what a dismal year for political reporters like Chatterbox.

But if California held party conventions to choose its delegates, any contender willing to stump the state searching for passionate ideological soul-mates has a shot at corralling a fair share of delegates. Rather than solely relying on 30-second TV spots, candidates would actually be rewarded for creating old-time local political organizations. Issues might again be discussed in living rooms, instead of just in soul-deadening attack ads. And the Democratic and Republican state conventions themselves would be a pageant of brass-bands-and-patriotic-bunting politics that America hasn’t seen since the days when national conventions actually chose the nominees instead merely serving as over-scripted coronations.

It won’t happen, of course. But Chatterbox should be allowed his moment of California dreaming.

Walter Shapiro