Wednesday, February 06, 2008

After Super Tuesday, on to Wisconsin -- and maybe we'll live up to what JFK said after all

After Super Tuesday, on to Wisconsin!
When this sign went up at the Madison Labor Temple on South Park Street weeks ago, it seemed like a dutiful argument for civic virtue -- vote even though it doesn't matter. At the time, it seemed that everything would be decided by Super Tuesday.

This year's early primary schedule had looked as if it would relegate our historically important primary election to obsolescence. The Wisconsin primary was the nation's first presidential primary -- one of those reforms Robert M. LaFollette's Progressive movement early in the 20th Century. I learned this history lesson as a kid from no less a teacher than a future president of the United States, when JFK campaigned in Madison. I was there when he had this to say about the Wisconsin primary.
In this important primary process, the state of Wisconsin has played a leading and a vital role. In 1905 - disgusted with the machinations of party chieftains - Wisconsin under Governor LaFollette enacted the first law in our country’s history calling for the direct election of all delegates to national party conventions. Three years later - acting under that law - the people of Wisconsin sent to the Republican national convention a slate of delegates pledged to Robert LaFollette, and dedicated to the liberal principles of the Progressive movement. This group - the first popularly elected delegation - gained national renown and made a lasting contribution to our political history. According to a journal of the time, the Wisconsin delegation "stood in that convention, a little band of fearless men, fighting to the last ditch for platform pledges vital to the public interest. Their contest in the Chicago convention fixed the attention of the country and forced the candidate nominated for President to broaden the platform by declarations--in favor of several of the important Wisconsin proposals which the convention had impatiently rejected." This Wisconsin example initiated a wave of political reform which led to our present primary system.
JFK went on to talk about a number of key Wisconsin primary elections that had played a significant national role. And, of course, his 1960 campaign in Wisconsin added another chapter to the history of Wisconsin making a difference. It was in Wisconsin that JFK defeated Minnesota senator and front-runner Hubert Humphrey in his own backyard. Eight years later, Eugene McCarthy's stunning upset of LBJ again put Wisconsin on the map.

All that history threatened to become a thing of the past this year. Wisconsin could have joined the Super Tuesday throng and got lost in the shuffle. It could have left its spring primary a spring primary and doomed it to further insignificance. Or it could do what it did, move it up to Feb. 19th. But until recently, the conventional wisdom had it that the race would be over by then.

Now our historic primary has a new lease on life. It's going to be a busy couple of weeks in Badgerland, as Peter Rickman, chairman of the Democratic Party of the 2nd Congressional District, notes in MyDD. The Wisconsin primary will matter. A lot. And we should see a lot of the candidates. Cool!

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