DETROIT Debbie Dingell was so angry her voice was quavering, a full day after she learned that four of the leading Democratic presidential contenders were pulling their names off Michigan s Jan. 15 primary ballot, effectively making it meaningless.
They are showing immense disrespect for the voters of the state of Michigan, and we ll remember that, Mrs. Dingell said, virtually spitting out the words. They are running for president of the United States, not for president of Iowa. The wife of John Dingell, the nation s longest-serving congressman, she is a political power in her own right, as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats who pulled out Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Barack Obama of Illinois; former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson may soon learn that Mrs. Dingell never forgets a slight and is not, by nature, the forgiving kind. But most of all, she and the state s entire Democratic establishment were deeply embarrassed.
The historically early primary they had fought hard to establish has just blown up in their face, rendering Michigan essentially irrelevant, unless the party returns to a caucus system.
Republicans were gleeful, especially the party s irrepressible chair, Saul Anuzis. Noting that the GOP contenders had just had a televised debate in Dearborn, he wrote on his blog, Democrats boycott Michigan virtually giving up Michigan s electoral votes as they refuse to campaign here and ask for our citizens support while we re here looking for solutions. What an insult!
Yet he may have spoken too soon. The Democrats in a sense stole the show from the Republicans. They pulled their names off the ballot the same day the debate took place, guaranteeing that it would get less publicity than it otherwise would have.
And if the Democratic primary becomes meaningless, that means there is no reason Democrats may not vote in the GOP contest, possibly distorting that party s preference.
That s what happened in 2000, when Democrats and independents helped give Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain a big win in Michigan s Republican presidential primary that year, embarrassing George W. Bush.
But the embarrassment was mostly the Democrats this week and frankly, they deserved it. In a nutshell, here s what happened:
Leaders of both parties wanted to make Michigan more relevant than it has been in the presidential selection process. So earlier this year, they lobbied the legislature to establish a Jan. 15 primary. That would make Michigan the earliest major state to vote. But this is also the year both national parties especially the Democrats realized they had to get their primary calendars under control.
So the Democrats announced that except for four little states Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina no state could hold a primary or caucus before Feb. 5.
For some reason, such as arrogance, the leaders of both Michigan parties figured this wouldn t apply to them even after Florida was stripped of all its delegates for moving its primary to Jan. 29. They can t refuse to seat delegations as important as Michigan and Florida, one top-ranking party member said.
So in August, the Michigan legislature voted to establish a primary Jan. 15, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm enthusiastically signed it. Michigan officials had dreams of lots of attention, hordes of press, candidates spending lavishly on TV commercials and hotel bills.
Yet the rest of the nation was not amused, nor were the political parties. The Republican national committee announced that Michigan would lose half its convention delegates for doing that.
For the Democrats, it was much worse. Seeking to mollify irked voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the main contenders announced they would not campaign in Michigan. Crestfallen, Democratic officials told themselves that wouldn t last.
As time got closer, they figured they would break the pledge. But Tuesday, four major candidates pulled themselves off the ballot. (Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland congressman who is running his second low-budget presidential effort, tried to take himself off, but filed the wrong paperwork. Twice.)
But the clear front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, shrewdly left her name on. (So did two nonhousehold words: Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.) That seemed to guarantee Ms. Clinton an easy victory.
Governor Granholm expressed appreciation by promptly endorsing Ms. Clinton, as many of the state s top officeholders already had done. Some analysts noted that the four who pulled out may have found it easier to do so since the polls showed a big Clinton win was likely in Michigan anyway.
The only real question is what Michigan Democrats do next. They could have their delegates count by returning to picking them in a Feb. 9 caucus. That would leave the primary as an expensive beauty contest. However, it is possible that the nomination will have been settled in the Feb. 5 super-duper primary. That night, about half the nation s delegates will be chosen in one fell swoop.
What is clear is that those paying attention to politics this week witnessed what amounted to a public spanking of an entire state by a usually divided political party, a party that needs Michigan s electoral votes if it hopes to capture the White House.
This may be a very entertaining year.