Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Texas Two Step

It happens that I was in Austin last night, right in the midst of the Texas presidential primary. What a rodeo!

I don't live with a television at home (Sandhill hasn't had one since 1979), and here we were, riveted to MSNBC's lively coverage of a confusing evening. It reminded me of my brother and I playing endless rounds of gin rummy as that network's early icons, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, cut their teeth as national broadcasters, trying to explain the intricacies of the 1960 Democratic convention. I was only 10 years old at the time, and I reckon I understood national politics then about as well as I do now—which is to say, only a little.

There's a way in which last night was a triumph of democracy, with proportional voting and multiple avenues for ways to register your preference (in Texas, always a little bigger than the rest of the states, you get two bites of the apple: you can vote in the primary and take part in a caucus—both count!). I heard one analyst carefully explain that Hillary could win the popular vote and fail to garner a majority of the delegates. Huh?

The good news is that there were record numbers of people voting and attending the caucuses. No matter what, it's a good sign that more people are showing up. The bad news is that the Democratic race is getting increasingly nasty. When will we move beyond creating a sense of "us" by defining an evil "them"? We need this transition more than we need any particular Republican, Democrat, Green, or Libertarian. We need a President who can hold the whole without looking to see who they can push out of the boat (without losing the majority vote).

This is the essential challenge of consensus: figuring out how to row the boat forward without leaving anyone adrift. I'd have been more excited about the Texas caucuses if the precinct groups were actually trying to work their differences. That's the way they run the caucuses in Iowa, and I think it could be refreshing to have the people discussing with each other what they want, rather than just responding to the candidates. In Texas, people merely had to show up, register their preference, and go home—which isn't much different than voting without a booth.

Although the dust from yesterday's primaries has settled this morning, the Democratic nomination obviously hasn't. In the coming weeks I'll be watching closely to see how much Clinton and Obama, under stress, offer divisiveness or healing—that thing we need more than anything else.

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