ritual of attrition

With every presidential election comes a familiar spectacle we might call the Ritual of Attrition: the presidential primaries. As the marathon begins, a crowd of candidates hoping to reach the exalted status of presidential nominee presents primary votes with a buffet of choices. But the way in which the primary system is organized, with each state voting in its turn, means that as the campaigning sorts out the hard corns from the fluffy popped kernels the last states to vote have the least amount of choice. That’s certainly a complaint I’ve heard during the Democrat’s primary process in 2008, when the field was narrowed to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Progressive voters holding on to the hope of giving Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel a shot at the general election once again watched those hopes get tossed over the cliff.

And so it is with this year’s Republican primary process, which has been entertaining for its desperate flirtation with implausible candidates as an alternative to Mitt Romney. Although the argument could be made that the primary process is a good crucible from which only the least damaged candidates will emerge, its sequential nature presents a strangely comical irony: a process ostensibly linked to democracy is itself undemocratic. Nevermind that the process is in many respects unfair to the candidates, who are forced to amass and spend fortunes just to spin the wheel of voter preferences. The voters themselves have unequal opportunities to vote for their preferred candidates. One could even suggest that voters end up being manipulated by the party establishment into voting for the safe, mainstream, corporate-stamped candidates.

Given the absence of popular Republicans like Jeb Bush and the self-destruction of the potentially credible Rick Perry (credible to Republicans, that is), the only alternatives to Mitt Romney – a political chameleon who threw his state of Massachussets under the campaign bus in his bid to remake himself an orthodox conservative – flamed-out. The remains include Rick Santorum, who seems to be a more genuine conservative, and Ron Paul whose quirky libertarianism puts him at odds with establishment Republicans. Of course, there’s the volatile, luggage-heavy Newt Gingrich, whose prospective candidacy delights Democratic strategists looking for an exciting match-up. Certainly, the presidential race would be more interesting if President Obama was pitted against former Speaker of the House Gingrich. Mitt Romney, the John Kerry of the Republican party minus the reasonably consistent ideological stance, is bland enough to bring tears to the eyes.

But I digress: it seems that Romney – safe, wealthy Romney – or perhaps Gingrich, the so-called GOP icon – are the candidates Republican voters will be expected to choose from, just as Democrats had to choose between newcomer Obama and luggage-heavy icon Hillary Clinton.

It’s all enough to think that democracy is wasted on a republic.

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