Silent Running

Why nobody cares about D.C.'s primary


Tomorrow, the nation's first presidential primary will finally take place, and the chances are pretty good that you've heard nothing whatsoever about it. This distinctly unheralded event is happening here in the District of Columbia; thanks to the efforts of local Democrats, the city succeeded in scheduling its contest ahead of the intensely scrutinized Iowa caucuses and the celebrated New Hampshire primary. D.C.'s activists expected at least some national media attention to be focused on the contest, and planned to use it to highlight the District's lack of voting rights. (The city has no voting representation on Capitol Hill.) Instead, their plan has backfired catastrophically. All that has been highlighted is that the city is more politically marginalized than ever, and that its activist politics are delusional.

It's not easy to convey the totality of this event's collapse: You don't have live out of town to be unaware that D.C. is staging a primary. There's hardly any campaign activity in town. In fact, there are hardly any candidate signs in the streets, and I live in a high-voter-turnout part of town that is usually plastered with signs. (Well, I can see a single Kucinich sign from my window.) There's little coverage in the press—I'm talking about the local press—and what there is tends to be buried inside the papers. There's even concern that, in an event intended to demonstrate the intense desire of Washingtonians to have the same voting rights as other Americans, few Washingtonians will bother to show up. "The only people who know this primary is occurring are the people in the District of Columbia," says the prominent Democrat Donna Brazile, "if they know it." (Here's a late effort from D.C.'s voteless Hill delegate to encourage voter turnout.)

But there are very good reasons for the lack of campaign activity and lack of press interest. One of those reasons is a lack of candidates: Most of the Democratic presidential candidates aren't bothering with Washington's primary at all. Last November, the following candidates asked that their names be taken off the D.C. primary ballot: Rep. Richard Gephardt, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Howard Dean, who had been polling well in the city, has stayed on the ballot. Tomorrow's "contest" is among Dean and Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun.

The local Democratic establishment was enraged by the withdrawal of so many Democrats, and for a while the city's mayor was exploding in pique: He actually threatened to keep the names of all these candidates on the ballot despite their written withdrawals. The city would actually punish these Democrats, he suggested, for what local activists called their "slap in the face." That would have been quite a demonstration of the city's commitment to democracy, but in the end it didn't happen.

Still, there was an entirely respectable—and entirely predictable— reason for these candidates' withdrawal: They had nothing to gain politically from participating.

In deference to the national Democratic Party, which wanted to maintain New Hampshire as the first "real" primary, D.C.'s Democrats agreed that no delegates to the party convention would be chosen by early D.C. voters; it's a "beauty contest." What local activists seem not to have asked themselves is why, that being the case, any candidate should spend time and money on D.C.? Obviously, if you expect to win here easily, as Dean does, you might as well stay on the ballot. And if your campaign is a long shot and you have nothing to lose—like Sharpton, Kucinich, and Moseley Braun—you might as well take your chances and play it out. But if you're looking at the prospect of early negative headlines pronouncing you a loser, what's the point? You minimize your losses and withdraw.

This is not an unknown phenomenon; candidates have been known to pass on better established contests for just such painfully obvious reasons. The plain truth is that this event was set up to fail. (Here's an alternative scenario for how local activists might have approached the primary.)Yet some of the city's Democrats have been in a steady state of public rage for months. They're not kicking themselves for their poorly thought-through strategy (not in public, anyway); some of them, however, have been lashing out at everybody else.

A candidates' "debate" staged in D.C. on Friday put this anger on remarkable display. This debate was quite an event. Even Dean skipped it, which meant that the line-up of candidates was limited to Sharpton, Moseley Braun, and Kucinich. (The Washington Post stuck its story about the event on page 7.) The debate's organizers actually tried to embarrass the absent Dean—the only major candidate to leave his name on the city's ballot—by putting an empty chair on the stage to emphasize his absence. Indeed, the first question directed to the candidates was aimed at Dean's chair. A long-time statehood activist named Mark Plotkin—he's got a politics show on the local all-news radio station—asked the chair this: If you're so supportive of D.C.'s voting aspirations, "Why aren't you here?"

But being there wasn't good enough, either. Plotkin later wanted to know if the three long-shot candidates who had shown up to debate were making D.C. voting rights an issue when they campaigned everywhere else in the country. The candidates seemed justifiably dumbstruck by such a question, and Moseley Braun actually offered a mild protest over treating the city's "friends," as she termed herself and the other candidates present, in such a fashion.

Doesn't she realize that if D.C.'s voting rights woes haven't become a national campaign issue, it's her fault? Or maybe the fault of no-show candidate Dean? Or the candidates who didn't show up to campaign? Or maybe it'll be the fault of local Democratic voters, who may not show up to vote.

It couldn't be the fault of the actvists, could it? They seem to have expected the slate of Democratic candidates to go through the motions here, as if they were characters cast in a locally produced morality play, on principle. Of course, anybody who thinks that national politicians are going to endanger their campaigns to demonstrate somebody else's principle deserves to have his morality play fold in previews, and that's just what's happened.

By the way, since tomorrow's event is just a beauty contest, you may be wondering what democratic process will pick the city's 39 actual convention delegates. The answer is that while a few will be chosen in caucuses in coming weeks, the great majority of them will be either "super delegates," who attend the convention because of their party positions and thus don't need to be elected, or else they will be handpicked by local party officials, and thus don't need to bother with elections, either.