Monday, December 31, 2007

2008: There'll Be Some Changes Made

My walk will be different,
my talk and my name
Nothin’ about me is going to be the same
I’m goin’ to change my way of livin’
If that ain’t enough
Then I’ll change the way that I strut my stuff

-- Overstreet and Higgins

Looking at the soon-to-be-launched presidential primaries season, the news out of Iowa and New Hampshire is that the races are close. And, why not? One has to go back to 1952 to find the last presidential election in which there wasn’t an incumbent president or vice president in the hunt.

Sen. John Warner’s (depicted left) decision to retire at the end of his 30th year in the U.S. Senate (1979-2009) opened the door for change in the Old Dominion, too. Over the Labor Day weekend that followed his announcement, strategies and promises for money bags began falling into place.

It didn’t take long for two likely senatorial candidates to emerge from the two-party system. Former Virginia governor Mark Warner announced he was in the game within a week, he seems to have no competition for the Democratic nod. Then came Richmond’s own Jim Gilmore, another former governor of Virginia, who appears to have shouldered aside any serious challengers to become the GOP’s candidate. My apologies to all less-than-serious candidates who might be offended.

The best song to use in production as a bed under the commentary of news reports, to underline the theme of 2008's politics, has to be, "There'll Be Some Changes Made." The song lyrics above are from that particular old jazz standard by W. Benton Overstreet and Billy Higgins. Versions of it have been recorded by Ethel Waters, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Billie Holliday and scores of others, including my old pal Duck Baker.

Presently, Democrats are having little trouble unifying behind Mark Warner, who left the Governor’s Mansion two years ago with soaring approval ratings. His predecessor, Jim Gilmore, finished his term as governor under more difficult circumstances. Warner still enjoys good numbers in opinion polls, Gilmore's remain less than flattering. Both men flirted with running for president, early in the going, then dropped out if the field. It’s hard to say whether either of them changed their standing with Virginia voters, due to those aborted campaigns.

The Virginia Republican Party has lost two consecutive gubernatorial races. More recently, George Allen -- a supposedly invincible incumbent -- lost his seat in the Senate to newly-minted Democrat Jim Webb, who once worked in Ronald Reagan’s administration.

Arguing over the blame for those losses, especially Allen’s stumble, has put some Republicans at odds with others. Gilmore is an unrepentant tax-cutter who appeals more to conservative Republicans than he does to moderates. Now the tough-talking Gilmore needs to reinvent himself as a charismatic leader and a peacemaker, in order to unify the party; finger-pointing and purity issues have fractured the Virginia GOP along what have become persistent ideological fault lines.

Still, with November a long way off, at this point Jim Gilmore is probably not as much of a long-shot as Jim Webb was at the onset of his campaign. Moreover, in politics the unexpected is always more than just possible.

The most likely result of the caucuses in Iowa (Jan. 3) and the New Hampshire primary (Jan. 8) is that the viability of the weakest of the second-tier candidacies in both parties will evaporate in the bright lights. After those initial contests, tradition has it that most of the heavy campaign contributions will flow toward candidates who finished well.

By the third week of January the field may have been cut in half, only the strong -- money-wise -- could be left standing.

Thirty other states will have already voted their preferences by the time of Virginia’s primary on Feb. 12. Running campaigns in all those states simultaneously takes a lot of dough, so those with the most cash on hand have a huge advantage.

Thus, the primary system favors well-connected, establishment candidates in a way that comes with a dose of irony. Before the ’70s few states saw fit to hold primaries; after all, they cost a lot of money.

Instead, in most states conventions of party regulars were held to determine who among them would be delegates to their party’s national convention. Then the chosen delegates went to that convention where all the votes on the floor were not necessarily predetermined. Those less orchestrated conventions were alive with potential for the unexpected to suddenly explode into the proceedings.

Hip political thinking of the ’70s asserted that primaries were more “inclusive” than the smoke-filled-rooms of the past. It wasn’t long before both parties bought into that brand of wisdom and most states fell in line. In the long run, the result of that supposedly well-intentioned change in the political process has proven to magnify the power of the deep-pocketed kingmakers who can bankroll a staff and buy TV ads.

The next few weeks will be a bumpy ride, as presidential campaigns fall dead in their tracks and ever more money bags drop into place to finance the changes on the way, even if some of those changes end up feeling an awful lot like the same ol’ same ol’.

-- 30 --

-- Art and words (except for music lyrics) by F.T. Rea

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