Monday, January 28, 2008

Sunshine Superwoman

Immediately after Florida's laughably inept performance in November, 2000, I probably would have supported a constitutional amendment banning the Sunshine State from participating in the next five presidential elections. And that was before anyone knew just how disastrous the result would be. I'm mostly past that now, but I still haven't forgotten that the incompetence of Florida voters and the corruption of their elected officials have resulted, at least indirectly, in the needless loss of nearly 4,000 American lives, the denigration of the Bill of Rights, the worldwide humiliation of our country, and the stain of torture on our national reputation. Oh yeah, and an economic policy that has buried our grandchildren in debt, diminished our standard of living, and reduced our currency to the point that Europeans use shredded dollar bills as confetti at their weddings.

OK, so maybe I'm not entirely over it after all.

Regardless, for better or for worse (and by that, I mean for worse) Florida remains a part of the United States, as well as the most critical swing state of the 21st Century. Ohio may be the new Florida in the eyes of some political observers, but the latter has seven more electoral votes and that gap will only increase with each new census. In theory, Democratic and Republican candidates don't necessarily need Florida to win the presidency, but in 2000 and 2004 they certainly did.

Armed with that knowledge, the Democrats did something dumb last year. Because the Sunshine State violated the party's newly sacred rule that only four states may hold primaries or caucuses in January, the Dems stripped Florida of its convention delegates. This, of course, was done in order to preserve the role of South Carolina, a state that has supported the Democratic nominee exactly once since 1960, as the first southern participant in the presidential selection process.

I guess I understand the basic logic here. If every state were allowed to leapfrog the pack, Super Tuesday would have been held six months ago, long before the various candidates had the chance to raise money and earn an honest hearing from the electorate. I also realize that three of the four states granted January exemptions—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada—will be closely fought in November. But punishing Florida to placate South Carolina makes sense only if you assume that Democratic party chair Howard Dean owns a chain of hotels and restaurants in Myrtle Beach (which he does not, to my knowledge).

Meanwhile, delegates or no, Florida will conduct their primary elections, both Democratic and Republican, tomorrow. At that time, they appear poised to euthanize the political career of Rudy Giuliani, an act that will at least begin to compensate the rest of us for the damage they did eight years ago with their butterfly ballots and hanging chads. Indeed, the robust GOP race has turned into the equivalent of college basketball's Final Four, with Giuliani and John McCain competing for the socially moderate warhawk vote and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee battling for the hardcore economic and cultural conservatives. The winners of each semifinal will move on to final round, beginning February 5, while the losers will, if they persist, play only a consolation game of no interest to anyone.

As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton surely regrets her pledge to stand with the national party and resist the temptation to campaign in Florida. The results out of South Carolina were obviously devastating to her, and the post-election news cycles have been all about Barack Obama's crossover appeal and Bill Clinton's overbearing insertion of himself into the contest. Hillary would, obviously, like to change the subject.

To that end, she announced yesterday that she would visit Florida one millisecond or two after the polls close, thus drawing attention to her likely victory there without technically breaking her vow to eschew any actual electioneering. Her opponents in the Obama campaign and in the media are naturally crying foul, saying that the former First Lady has broken the spirit, if not the letter, of the candidates' agreement. The Clinton camp responds by arguing that Obama's national advertising buy on CNN does the same thing, given that these ads have been airing in Florida as well as everywhere else. It's a weak claim—Clinton could have responded by simply doing the same thing—and it probably won't end the chorus of derision that will accompany her late night visit to Miami (or wherever she ends up).

I would have counseled a bolder approach. If I were in charge, Hillary Clinton would be crisscrossing the Sunshine State as we speak, dancing the Conga in Hialeah, chatting with seniors in St. Pete, and hamming it up with Mickey in Orlando. Barack Obama would squawk about the broken pledge, but he would suddenly be on the defensive. As far as the damage this might cause Hillary, I would calculate that a bold move (even in defiance of a previous agreement) would sit better with the electorate than the weasely choice of showing up the moment the primary is over (maybe it depends on what the definition of "is over" is).

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan, having been unexpectedly manhandled by George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses, arrived at a scheduled debate in New Hampshire supposedly to face Bush one on one. In fact, that had been the agreement made between the two candidates. Instead, Reagan brought along several other Republican hopefuls, insisting that they, too, had the right to participate. The moderator moved to prevent the Gipper from speaking, but before he could, Reagan responded defiantly, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!" The man's name was actually Breen, but it didn't matter; Ronnie looked strong, and Bush, silently witnessing the unanticipated contretemps, appeared passive and weak. When Reagan subsequently won big in New Hampshire, nobody focused in the fact that he had, indeed, broken the rules, only that he was once again the frontrunner.

Florida has a right to be heard, Hillary could say, and if Howard Dean doesn't like it he can go into the corner and practice his scream. Obviously, she wouldn't use precisely those words, but she would plunge unapologetically into the strip malls of Sarasota and the women's clubs of West Palm Beach. Obama would have enough sense not to follow her into this ambush, but he would still be on the sidelines looking a little like Poppy Bush slumped in his debating chair all those years ago.

The Clintons, however, remain risk averse, a trait that may yet cost them—er, I mean her—the presidency.

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