April: Please Come Soon

March madness, indeed. College basketball's version adds to the public stock of harmless pleasure. That cannot be said of what the political class has been up to. Consider two things.

March began with what can best be described as a riot by the nation's political class. The riot concerned ports.

Or, more accurately, it concerned container terminals. Not since the Terri Schiavo stampede has there been such a brew of piety and irrationality. But the Schiavo episode did no lasting damage to the nation, and was a mostly Republican folly.

The high-minded are constantly telling us that the nation needs more bipartisanship. Well, the riot about ... well, whatever it was about, was nothing if not bipartisan. The subject, sort of, was the terrifying specter of foreigners' taking over operations of six of the major ports that are among the 80 percent of U.S. terminals currently operated by ... foreigners. Worse, by an Arab nation, which muddies up our certitudes by being a staunch friend of America's.

In 1978, freshman Sen. Jack Danforth, bemused by the national hullabaloo over the treaty giving Panama control of the Panama Canal, dryly said of his state: Missouri has considerable racial, ethnic and religious diversity but is united by a passionate devotion to possessing a canal that few Missourians had thought about since their high-school history classes. In 2006, America is a nation of 300 million patriots willing to die in the last ditch in defense of the proposition that terminals at the Port of Baltimore shall not be operated by a company owned by Dubai, the most pro-American government in the Arab world.

But are these patriots willing to pay higher mortgage costs for that principle? They might have to.

The day the Dubai company ran up the white flag, surrendering before Congress could legislate its xenophobia, January's trade deficit of $68.5 billion was announced, so the nation is on a pace to exceed last year's deficit of $723.6 billion. We are sending overseas an ocean of dollars; we want a lot of them to be invested here, some of them in Treasury bills that finance our budget deficits. If foreigners become reluctant to invest, interest rates will rise to combat the reluctance. And an estimated $2 trillion--about a quarter of all Americans' mortgage debt--is in adjustable-rate loans.

Also this month, the Democratic Party has again been tweaking the process by which it chooses its presidential nominees. This time it is considering slipping perhaps two events--caucuses, not primaries; it is graven on the heart of humanity by the finger of God that New Hampshire must be the first primary--in the days between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire. Here. We. Go. Again.

Presumably the purpose of these recurring tweakings is to produce better, meaning more marketable, nominees. After their riotous 1968 convention in Chicago--which nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who narrowly lost to Richard Nixon--Democrats democratized their nominating process. The few remaining bosses were banished. The voice of "the people" would be heard and heeded. So the 1972 convention, where Shirley MacLaine was a delegate and the mayor of Chicago was excluded, nominated George McGovern, who carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

In 1988, in an attempt to strengthen the voice of the South and thereby nominate someone competitive in all regions, Democrats invented Super Tuesday, with 14 Southern and border-state primaries. But they did not reckon on Jesse Jackson's winning large percentages of Southern black votes. The 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis, a liberal Northeasterner, lost 40 states.

The predictable result of "front-loading" the 2008 nominating process will be to reduce the ability of a dark-horse candidate to do what Jimmy Carter did in Iowa in 1976, and Gary Hart and John McCain did in New Hampshire in 1984 and 2000, respectively--become a top-tier candidate by relentlessly practicing retail politics in a small state. Instead, the changes to the 2008 process will strengthen the strong--well-known candidates with lots of money. That means, especially, Hillary Clinton, who has no serious opponent for re-election but whose Senate campaign already has in hand more than twice as much money ($17 million) as the Democratic National Committee has ($7 million).

By 2008, America will have gone 11 elections without choosing a president from the Northeast. Ten since choosing an avowed liberal (Lyndon Johnson). Only two sitting senators have been elected president--Warren Harding and John Kennedy. And in the 46 years since it elected Massachusetts' Senator Kennedy, the Northeast's percentage of the nation's electoral votes has declined from 24.8 percent to 18.8 percent. But in March 2006 the Democratic Party has increased the probability that in March 2008 its nomination will be secured by a liberal Northeastern senator. Madness? Maybe.

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