NEWS

Holmes: A few kind words for the second tier

Rick Holmes

Before the year is out, the chorus of candidates singing their own praises will get as tiresome as "All I Want for Christmas is You."

Never has the presidential primary season overlapped so much with the holiday season, which is the least of what's wrong with the primary schedule. The Iowa caucuses will be up against the Orange Bowl, and New Hampshire primary voters will trudge to the polls five days later. If you're in a media market that broadcasts into one of these states, you may want a Tivo for Christmas to make it easier to avoid the commercials.

Listening to the candidates repeat lines from their stump speeches and TV commercials is bad enough. We also have to put up with the media gang repeating their lame story lines.

TV news managers like to keep the plot simple, and they have a hard time handling a large cast of characters. So for the last six months or so, all we've heard is Hillary vs. Obama (and sometimes Edwards). On the Republican side, it was Rudy, Rudy, Rudy, then Rudy vs. Mitt (or maybe Fred). Lately they've been screaming for rewrite because some bit player named Huckabee managed to connect with Iowa voters without much help from the Beltway experts.

"There's a lot of innings in this match," Sen. Ted Kennedy said this week. "I'd like to see some of those in the second level get some attention."

Kennedy hasn't endorsed a candidate yet, and I expect he'd like some of the attention to land on his longtime friend Chris Dodd and longtime colleague Joe Biden.

But I'm not sure there will be enough innings for the likes of Biden, Dodd - or Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Duncan Hunter or Tom Tancredo to get a decent at-bat.

There once was a time, not that long ago, when California's June primary could clinch the nomination for a candidate. It was a time when primaries were spread far enough apart that candidates could use a decent showing in one to build up name recognition and contributions to compete in the next primary three or four weeks later, when voters had more time to get to know the candidates.

It's possible that, this time around, the candidates will split the first few primaries and still be fighting when the later states come around - especially on the Republican side, where the rank-and-file are dissatisfied with the choices and none of the candidates seem to wear well.

But it's more likely that all will be decided on or before Feb. 5, when California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states go to the polls. This will be followed by nine months for buyers' regret to take root, for unlikely convention scenarios to be aired, for tedious weighing of vice-presidential choices, and for speculation about Mike Bloomberg and other potential third-party candidates.

This is what we get when attention-hungry state politicians get jealous of the quadrennial attention poured on Iowa and New Hampshire, and when national parties and the Congress fail to exercise any leadership. There are plenty of better ways to select presidential nominees - my preference is for a series of regional primaries, set a month apart, rotating in order from election to election. But fear of offending New Hampshire, Iowa or of putting some favored candidate at a disadvantage keeps leaders in Washington from pulling the trigger.

So before it's too late, and in deference to Sen. Kennedy, let me say a few nice things about some of those candidates who may not have time to rise above the second tier:

Chris Dodd: Sometimes a longshot candidate has to throw the long ball, which in presidential politics means taking a political position that goes against the "he-can't-support-that" conventional wisdom. So while the Democratic front-runners hem and haw about the smallest possible tax increases, Dodd embraces a carbon tax. If we're serious about reducing carbon emissions, why not reform the tax code so that people have to pay for the greenhouse gases they put in the air? Dodd's proposal is the closest thing to Al Gore's prescription for global warming, and it's a shame the other candidates aren't talking about it.

Dodd is also the only Peace Corps alumnus that has waged a serious campaign for president, as well as the only Democrat with experience in the military. He talks about universal national service with passion, and we could use more of that.

Joe Biden: One thing the Bush administration has taught us is that, while Congress can make or break any president's domestic policies, only the president can manage foreign policy. And when you have a president who has never thought much about foreign policy, bad things happen.

Biden has spent decades thinking and learning about foreign policy. Several other Democrats have said he'd make a fine secretary of state. He's also the only candidate in either party who has put forward a coherent plan for a post-occupation Iraq. His "soft partition" plan isn't universally accepted, but it beats the generalities the other candidates are spinning.

Bill Richardson: He's got a great resume - governor of New Mexico, congressman, UN ambassador, secretary of energy - and a good sense of humor. He's a Latino from a border state who can talk about immigration with practicality and compassion. I've got relatives in New Mexico who say he's a good man as well as a smart politician.

John Edwards: OK, maybe he's in the top tier, but coverage of his campaign has gotten bogged down in the endlessly fascinating - for full-time political pundits, at least - discussion of how negative he's willing to go to take some votes away from Clinton and Obama. He appeals to me because he is the first candidate in a long time to show real passion about poverty, and it's a shame nobody's spent much time engaging an issue the ruling elites find it easy to ignore.

Ron Paul: It's about time someone from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party raised a voice in favor of small government, individual rights and a foreign policy that doesn't meddle in other countries' affairs. If only the horserace-obsessed media would force the GOP frontrunners to respond to his challenge.

Dennis Kucinich: Yes, his admission that he saw a UFO at Shirley MacLaine's house reinforced his image as a marginal wacko, and yes, he's starting to look Stassen-esque. But while the other Democrats argue the details of complicated health care reforms that seem designed to blunt opposition by the insurance industry, Kucinich proudly calls for a single-payer system like the one that is right now delivering quality universal health care, at far lower costs, in industrialized countries around the world.

John McCain: Wouldn't it be nice if Republican voters, having looked hard at the frontrunners and concluded that Romney's too slick, Huckabee's too inexperienced and Giuliani's too weird, turned to the guy whose experience and integrity put him head-and-shoulders above the rest?

Like most voters, I look at character more than position papers and biography, and the test of character is the willingness to say what you believe even though you know it may not be smart politics. There's lots in McCain's platform I don't agree with, but in his career he's shown more political courage than the rest of the field combined. He stood up to the Republican Party's top bankrollers and ideologues to push campaign finance reform. He bucked his own president repeatedly to get legislation passed banning torture. And even as he launched a presidential campaign he knew would be hurt by it, he made himself the GOP leader in the push for comprehensive immigration reform.

Cynicism about politicians has its place, but there also ought to be room for serious consideration of the ideas serious candidates are putting forward. Conscientious voters may have to listen hard - or, better yet, read - to separate the ideas from the campaign din. But now that we've suffered through seven years of a president elected mostly because the pundits told us he'd be a pleasant guy to invite to a neighborhood barbecue, maybe we've learned to look a little closer at the contenders.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com. Visit the Holmes & Co. blog at blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco.