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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2003

Will parties abolish Michigan's presidential primaries?

LANSING, Mich. - Whatever your politics, here's something on which virtually everyone agrees: Next year's presidential election is bound to be a referendum on George W. Bush and his administration.

Millions of Americans clearly believe he has been a powerful wartime leader who has restored honor to the White House. Millions of other Americans think he is a disaster whose reckless policies have damaged the economy and plunged us into a needless war that may have terrible long-term consequences.

Democrats are lining up to take him on. Republicans are preparing to defend the fort. And you might think all that would make Michigan's Feb. 24 presidential primary more important than ever.

Think again.

Instead, both parties are talking about abolishing it.

Michigan's primary has worked pretty well. Flash back to 1992, when it helped decide both nominations. The first President Bush was being challenged from the right by Pat Buchanan, who decided to make a major stand in Michigan. He thought he could appeal to auto workers who were angry about foreign competition and socially more conservative than generally believed.

Bill Clinton was ahead in the Democratic race, but he had what was seen as a tough fight here with former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also tried to appeal to labor, and Paul Tsongas, who appealed to suburbanites and university types.

But Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton blew their rivals away by wide margins and helped clinch their nominations in Michigan.

After that, however, Democrats abandoned the primary, picking their convention delegates instead through a confusing and highly complex “caucus” process that seems designed to discourage all but a few easily controlled party stalwarts from voting.

Republicans have been far better about letting democracy work. But their party leadership was embarrassed last time, when Arizona Sen. John McCain walloped George Bush, 51 percent to 43 percent, even though virtually the entire party leadership backed Mr. Bush. An embarrassed Gov. John Engler blamed Democrats and independents for crossing over and “spoiling” their primary.

Now, Republicans, who control the state Legislature, are talking about introducing a bill to abolish the primary - perhaps only for this election.

Canceling the primary would save the hard-pressed state a badly needed $6 million to $8 million, party spokesman Greg McNeilly estimated. “Given the current budget constraints, I don't know if we can afford a primary that is just a beauty contest.”

That reasoning may make sense - except that it makes no sense at all. The essence of democracy is voting, and those with long memories know we have been down this path before. Back in 1968, Democrats voted overwhelmingly for anti-Vietnam War candidates in what few primaries there were, but the convention ignored that when it came time to choose a candidate.

The consequences tore the Democratic Party apart, handed the presidency to Richard Nixon, and led to sweeping reforms that made primaries the rule, rather than the exception. What Democratic party hacks forget, or ignore, is that Michigan voters want the freedom to switch parties whenever they feel like it. That may not be neat and tidy, but neither is democracy. What Republicans forget is that the one thing that is certain is uncertainty.

Twelve years ago, in April 1991, it was seen as inconceivable that George Bush's father would have a primary opponent. Nobody who was anybody then thought the Democrats had the ghost of a chance of winning the presidency in 1992. And guess what.

The Democrats now have a “new and improved” caucus plan on their Web site, which is still terribly restrictive and inconvenient. What they need to do instead is trust the voters, abandon it, and go back to the primary. And the Republicans need to stop talking about abolishing it. For if I remember correctly, there aren't any primaries in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was chosen by the equivalent of a Ba'ath Party caucus long ago.

Think about that.



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