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The Primary Punishment

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MI and FL broke the rules; but only because they were swimming in IA and NH's pool

When the DNC primary commission met in 2005 to discuss changing the nomination calendar they anticipated a great number of problems, but today's current situation was the last thing they could have envisioned. The concerns they had three years ago are, in fact, notable today only for how irrelevant they seem. They worried that the nominee would be chosen too early, by too few states, and that he or she would emerge untested from a short battle.

In their defense, no one saw this coming. And it's hard to look into a crystal ball, especially when you're still in a bunker.

For Democrats at the time, the pendulum had yet to shift and the wounds of 2004 were still fresh in their minds. When the committee met for the third time on July 16, 2005, they heard from party activists on ways to increase diversity in the nominating process. DNC veteran Harold Ickes questioned almost every witness asking whether the preference given to Iowa and New Hampshire "hurts the quality" of the Democrat candidates. Yes, they all said in one way or another.

One particularly convincing panelist that day, turn out guru Curtis Gans argued that since the McGovern-Fraser commission Democrats had yet to create a system that is durable. "What we have created is the worst of both worlds," Gans said. "We emerge with a candidate who hasn't been tested."

In other words, you end up with John Kerry.

Despite this frightening prospect, a slew of alternative options, and evidence supporting more wide scale changes, the committee was hesitant to support any drastic measures that would alter New Hampshire and Iowa's first-in-the-nation roles. And so they decided on the most moderate option -- they would add Nevada and South Carolina to the early voting "window," increasing diversity but still preserving their traditional lifeguards.

And so it went. Like children on a beach, the DNC feared straying too far from Iowa and New Hampshire, who had dominated the primary process since the late 1960s, in part by arguing that their small states give candidates more personal contact with voters. Sitting high on their proverbial lifeguard stands; the states convinced the party that they would continue to keep the electoral process safe through their retail-politicking eyes. And like any good lifeguards, they had whistles and obscure state laws to prove their entitlement.

Whether it was out of fear or a Baywatch-like awe, Howard Dean and the DNC rules committee were so hell-bent on preserving the status of Iowa and New Hampshire that they would later punish Florida and Michigan for defying the rules set in 2005. In the same breath, however, they would ignore Iowa and New Hampshire, who also violated these "rules" by disregarding the time frame the committee had set for their contests.

The campaigns also shoulder some blame for never envisioning a world beyond New Hampshire and Iowa. In a move that solidified the importance of the traditional early-voting states, the campaigns all signed a written pledge not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, lest they take away attention from Iowa's time in the sun.

Stripped of their delegates and access to candidates, Florida and Michigan held their primaries anyway. Barack Obama's name wasn't on the Michigan ballot -- an argument his campaign will no doubt make this weekend in contending the election was invalid. But this was a strategic, albeit shortsighted, decision his campaign made.

As it turns out, Michigan was not only punished, it was also pawned. According to several sources, Hillary Clinton was literally tricked into staying on the Michigan ballot by a last minute effort to embarrass the then-frontrunner before Iowa.

Sources with Edwards, Dodd and Biden's campaigns -- speaking on the condition of anonymity -- said they discussed a plan, apparently floated by the Obama campaign, to privately tell Clinton's team they would remain on the ballot and at the last minute remove their names. Thus, Clinton would be the sole name on a renegade state's ballot. The lifeguards, of course, would not be pleased.

No thanks to the rules committee or the campaigns, the primary process as a whole has been marked by record-shattering voter turnout, creating a burst of interest in states typically ignored in an election year. The extended primary galvanized a new class of voters, and resulted in what analysts by and large predict will be permanent gains for Democrats in November.

It's nothing short of a classic coming-of age-tale. The same young children, who have carried over-inflated idea of lifeguards, eventually grow up and realize 16-year-olds with CPR certificates and a few YMCA classes can do water safety too. Hopefully, the Democrats grew up a little during these last few months and have seen that states, when given the opportunity and access, can handle the responsibility of getting to pick a nominee. And of course, the party is better off when they do.

Tomorrow, when the DNC rules committee meets to determine the status of the votes cast in Florida and Michigan, we'll see just how much they've grown. Part of righting the wrongs in Florida and Michigan will require the DNC realizing the role they played in the flawed process. They were wrong to adhere to a schedule tailor-made to benefit the past and not the future. They were wrong to react with such haste and harshness in punishing Michigan and Florida. And most importantly, they were wrong to protect the interest of two states, at the expense of two others.