NEW YORK -- One of the great frustrations for American presidents and other officials during the Cold War was that our diplomats and intelligence agencies could not figure out the secretive process by which the Soviet Union actually chose its leaders, or even whether there was a process. Names like Malenkov, Chernenko, Andropov and Gorbachev seemed to come right out of the blue -- or the red.
Now, decades later, under our red-white-and-blue democracy, American candidates, politicians and pundits can't figure out how we are going to pick our next president. "Some party activists fear that the nominating process is spinning out of control," said The Washington Post last week in what may be an understatement. The newspaper of political record then announced it would be experimenting with new kinds of coverage to catch up with whatever the new process is. On June 13, the Post announced:
"This article is the first in an occasional series of Fast-Track Campaign stories that will explore the impact of the new political calendar on the 2008 presidential campaign. While there is nothing new about states moving up their presidential primaries to gain more influence over the selection of the parties' nominees, the sheer number of states that have decided to do so in the 2008 campaign cycle has forced rapid recalibrations of traditional strategies for winning the nomination fight."
Ah, yes, the new calendar. We don't know what it is yet. And while we know there is a fast track, we don't know where it's going to or where all the curves are. Perhaps it means that the United States is once more evolving as a more democratic democracy. Perhaps it means that a marginal celebrity -- read Fred Thompson -- could become a nominee without the scrambling and the intense scrutiny most candidates have had to endure for the past half-century. Perhaps it means that someone rich enough could buy the presidency outright -- read Michael Bloomberg, purchaser of the New York mayoralty -- without bothering with things like primary elections or party conventions.
The last procedural revolutions came in 1960 and 1972. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a young and lightly regarded senator, manipulated primary elections and a new kind of press and reporters (electronic and younger) to win the Democratic nomination without the permission of the old-fashioned "bosses" who thought they controlled state delegations and national conventions. Then in 1972, reforms in the Democratic Party eliminated the power of those bosses, shifting it to the liberal activists and political junkies willing to spend years going door-to-door to elevate their own concerns and causes to the national agenda. Soon enough, conservative activists in the Republican Party did the same.
And so the nominating conventions of both parties became shows rather than contests, replaced by a new nominating process that emphasized "momentum" in surviving a decathlon of primaries and press scrutiny.
Each week or two, contestants would be eliminated as an influential political elite -- financial contributors, political reporters, pollsters and ambitious endorsers in both parties -- threw money, attention and themselves at "front-runners." The contest began in small states -- caucuses in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary election -- which tended to eliminate all but two or three candidates in the spring of election years. Then the larger states weighed in later, and usually one man was left standing by summertime and the conventions, which ratified rather than selected.
Not this time. Politicians and journalists in the big states -- California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey -- began to ask why little guys like Iowa and New Hampshire were having all the fun, getting all the attention. Primary elections are the business of the states, and the big states are deciding to hold early primaries, too. At least 22 states will vote or caucus on or before Feb. 5. The contest will change from decathlon (or marathon) to a sprint, run in the few weeks or days before that winter Tuesday.
Whatever else the "Fast-Track" process produces, it will certainly reduce the influence of "middlemen" -- pundits and power brokers will no longer have the chance to scrutinize and filter the candidates, or bargain with them, before doling out the plaudits and dollars that used to make all the difference as candidates moved from event to event, contest to contest. There will be no time for such consideration or manipulation. Everything could happen at the same time.
It is possible, for instance, that an unlikely candidate may sweep the field in the 24 hours of that instant national primary on Feb. 5, or the one-day frenzy could produce two candidates without solid national constituencies, making possible a serious third-party or independent candidacy by someone as talented (and rich) as Mayor Bloomberg.
Who will win? If I knew, I'd tell you. Will this new game produce a new kind of American politics in the future? I wish I knew about that, too. But none of us can see around the curve of this very fast track.
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