True Primary Colors

Gov. Mitt Romney during a town hall even in Wisconsin in early April (AP)

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s recent primary wins in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Wisconsin placed him, at last, in the coveted position as the Republican Party’s “presumptive nominee” for president.  He finds himself in the position that Barack Obama did during his bruising primary fight against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 cycle: he is far ahead enough that his closest challenger, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, would have to win an improbable number of delegates — three-quarters of those in the remaining races before August — to beat him.

The math is bad but not impossible for Santorum.  The math was impossible yet strangely not bad for Hillary Clinton four years ago.  But in this vicious, cash-burning primary run, both party partisans and outside observers have been quick to call the fight.   Game over, advantage Romney, and let’s get to the main event: Romney vs. Obama.

Except, wait a minute, the Republicans haven’t even had half their primaries.  And it is  incredible that these reporters, commentators, and in some cases, elected officials, have simply ignored those people who ultimately choose their leaders.  This obsession with the general election demonstrates an aloof disregard for democratic process or a complete contempt for primary voters who are, after all, the most committed democrats.

Primaries are more than just a means for selecting a nominee or standard-bearing candidate.  They are not a simple means to an end.  The process is just as important, if not more so, than the outcome.  Primary races are an ongoing political dialogue between a pluralistic political community and the leaders who seek to represent them. They are means for a candidate to meet the voters, for him to make his arguments to them, and for them to make their case to him.  They are a chance for the voters to meet him, and to take the measure of the man.  Primary voters particularly take this responsibility very seriously.  To cut this run short — in effect, to short-circuit the democratic process in favor of expedience — denies the people their power and their voice.  It is undemocratic, unrepublican, antipolitical and un-American.

Hillary Clinton, ending her presidential run in 2008. (Getty images via Sydney Morning Herald)

I think how important the primary process is when we saw the guts, tenacity and fight that Hillary Clinton brought to the hustings during the 2008 campaign. Even then, calls went out early for her to abandon the fight.  But she kept on, even when she knew she couldn’t win.  We’ve never seen a candidate like her or a candidacy like her’s, and our political life would be poorer without her story to tell.  Certainly our political rhetoric would not be so rich but for the “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” to whom she gave voice.  The President realized those voices could not be ignored and that is why in part, I think, she still holds the second-most visible job in the Administration after him.

Romney has been acting like the Republican nominee — most recently before an association of U.S. news editors — and this is a mistake.  He isn’t the nominee until he convinces his own party  he is their nominee first — and until he listens to his own party’s dissenters. That is an important part of the American political tradition.  Winning the nomination isn’t simply a matter of tallying delegates (although, as Obama demonstrated very convincingly, that is the bottom line).  It’s also a matter of listening to those who don’t agree with you, even if they are your friends.

This is a fundamental aspect of politics that gets lost in daily reporting, particularly during campaign season, as we maniacally focus on the horse surging ahead and the horse falling behind.  But something else is happening, hidden behind the vote tallies and delegate counts.  It’s a nation in a conversation with itself about what it is and what it would like to be.  We don’t always expect the news media to listen above the daily din.  But when the candidates themselves stop listening, even to their own party, that’s when our politics is in real trouble.