Friday, February 8, 2008

Fixing Michigan’s primary problem

Oh, sweet irony. We coulda been a contender.

Michigan’s much-vaunted Jan. 15 primary has ultimately proved useless. So much for power-drunk party hucksters insisting Michigan show those spoiled brats in Iowa and New Hampshire how to really pick a president.

California fittingly will have sealed up the Republican nomination - once again trumping Michigan, which has long hemorrhaged talent and influence to the Golden State.

And slow and steady Ohio on March 4 – or even once-obscure contests in Kentucky and Oregon in May – will have super-sized impact on picking the Democratic nominee.

Stop for a second and imagine the media frenzy in the Mitten State right now if we’d just kept our Feb. 12 contest on the calendar.

We would be ground zero, boasting the biggest primary after Super Tuesday.

For the GOP, Michigan would be hailed as the salvation of Mitt Romney. If he won his home state (his 23rd by last count, as his electoral strategy seems to rest on buying estates in every state) the race would be declared wide open by the talk radio hordes.

Erudite philosophers Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter would rejoice the party wasn’t over yet, thanks to their prescience (of course) and the glorious Great Lakes State.

For the Dems, it would be a decisive battle between the Clinton machine (oiled by Gov. Jennifer Granholm) and the grassroots Barack Obama effort. Whoever could take the lion’s share of our 128-delegate gift basket would emerge the frontrunner.

Michigan’s early primary was erected as Hillary Clinton’s firewall, but it would have been far handier now that she’s broke, dead-even in delegates and facing an electoral map favoring Obama.

So how did Michigan plunge to its default position of irrelevance to the rest of the nation?

Last year, we ponied up more than $10 million for an early primary when we could least afford it, given a $2 billion deficit. But party bigwigs promised if we hold it, they will come.

We all know how that turned out on the D side. There were no rap sessions with a teary Hillary or hope revivals starring Obama. John Edwards never showed up for photo ops at mill closings. Only the leprechaun-like Dennis Kucinich held rallies dotted by those yearning for a glimpse of his glamazon, 20-something wife.

The Dems blew it, thanks to Sen. Carl Levin and Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell. The DNC jerked all our delegates, followed by Obama and Edwards bowing out.

Senate Democrats could have fixed the mess but demanded a bevy of election reforms in return, which the majority Republicans rejected.

So Hillary won the beauty contest 55 to 40 percent over “uncommitted” or ABC – Anyone But Clinton. But her deficit in the youth vote and staggering loss in Detroit spell trouble here in the general election.

Whichever Dem prevails will have to do serious repair work, having unwittingly left the door open for the moderate McCain. Good move.

The only way to undo some damage is hold a party-funded caucus in a play to win half our delegates back.

Republicans fared better, drawing belated ads and candidate stops as state GOP Chair Saul Anuzis promised. But the primary became a yawning gimme for Romney with only half the Republican delegates at stake.

“Michigan is a good bellwether state,” proclaimed a giddy Anuzis (who still says with as straight face that he doesn’t back the Mittster). “If you can win in Michigan, you can win everywhere.”

Not quite.

The primary allowed party honchos and legislators to bask in the Cult of Mitt for one shining night, partying down like Ronald Reagan had been reincarnated at the Southfield Embassy Suites. It was the zenith of Romney’s run - and then the rude awakening came in South Carolina, Florida and finally California.

So where did our primary hustle get us? Optimists would say Michigan - with its shuttered factories and worst unemployment rate - crystallized the souring economy as the top political issue.

That’s one takeaway from the clichéd CNN interviews of unemployed autoworkers at a smoky Macomb County bowling alley.

Here’s the other: Michigan must be the most pathetic place on earth to do business next to, say, Burma. Why would companies want to set up shop in our decrepit state?

As Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, the patron saint of Michigan economic development, watched the nonstop negative coverage, he probably thought long and hard about retiring.

In the end, the economy is the primary problem we face. No matter how hard the governor hopes, President Bush isn’t going to send us a fat check now that he’s seen our plight on tee-vee.

No, it’s up to us. And I’m guessing we could have found far better investments for that 10 million bucks.

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