Five Best Thursday Columns

Howard Dean on primary calendars, Joe Lieberman on Tunisia's elections, and Joan Vennochi on Elizabeth Warren

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Howard Dean on leap-frogging primaries As several states threaten to move their primaries into January, New Hampshire has indicated it may move its own contest to late December to preserve its "first in the nation" status. "Ironically, while these states claim they are doing this to increase their role in the nominating process, holding primaries in January ... threatens to decrease the relevance of voters in those states," writes former DNC chair Howard Dean in The Washington Post. When Dean was DNC chair, he created new rules in which Nevada and South Carolina were permitted earlier primaries, and disincentives were put in place for states that moved theirs before the first Tuesday in February. Even so, some states moved their primaries into January, prompting Iowa and New Hampshire to move theirs back as well. "Because Florida and Michigan had violated the DNC rules, they lost all their delegates; in effect, the legislatures of those two states chose to strip their voters of meaningful participation." Dean says it makes sense that states would seek earlier primaries to attract attention, but national parties also have the right to enforce rules. Still, the Republican Party lessened the disincentives this year. States now only lose half their nominating delegates rather than all of them. "Under the current system, for example, even if Florida violates the rules and loses half its 198 delegates, it would still have more than New Hampshire (23) and Iowa (28) combined." The shifting primary calendars especially hurt lesser known or underfunded candidates. "The balance of power in the nominating process has been skewed by the states' unwillingness to respect the national parties and by the unwillingness of the parties to do much about it. Ultimately, the biggest victims of this quadrennial farce are the voters."

Joe Lieberman on Tunisia's elections "On Sunday, the Arab Spring's first competitive multiparty democratic elections will take place in Tunisia," writes Sen. Joe Lieberman in The Wall Street Journal. "Tunisia's vote is a major milestone for the cause of freedom in the Middle East" which "deserves U.S. support." Tunisia was the first to begin peaceful protests that launched a region-wide Arab Spring movement. Its transition away from authoritarian rule has been calmer than in other countries. "Partly this reflects the inclusive decision-making process established by Tunisia's interim civilian authorities," Lieberman says, and partly it is because Tunisia "has a real middle class, a strong and entrepreneurial private sector, no significant sectarian or ethnic divisions, a history of religious tolerance, and longstanding equal rights for women." Tunisia is not as demographically or politically important as Egypt or Libya, but "Tunisia's revolution has already inspired the rest of the Arab world. The consolidation there of a stable, democratic government working effectively to meet the needs of its people would likewise serve as a powerful model abroad." Thus, the U.S. has incentive to ensure the freedom and fairness of the coming elections, increase its support for democratic institutions there after the elections  -- including an Islamist faction that has yet to demonstrate extremist tendencies -- and recognize the importance of economic growth. While we cannot provide large amounts of financial aid, we can negotiate free trade agreements and help expand a European development bank there "modeled after similar efforts in Central Europe following the fall of communism."

Kim Phillips-Fein on New York's 1970s Occupation "[T]here is a local precedent," for the Occupy Wall Street protests, "one that few people remember today: the sit-ins and 'occupations' that followed New York City's deep budget cuts in 1975 and 1976," writes NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein in The New York Times. In 1975, banks stopped marketing the city's bonds, worrying about the municipal accounting, so "to regain access to the bond market, and under pressure from Albany and Washington, Mayor Abraham D. Beame proposed a series of austerity budgets, slashing funds for schools, libraries and firehouses." Public unions organized marches on Wall Street and urged people to withdraw funds from the banks that had withdrawn support from the city. When cuts took effect, "laid-off police officers rushed onto the Brooklyn Bridge, their still employed brethren reluctant to make arrests. Sanitation workers went on a wildcat strike, leaving garbage piled up in the South Bronx and on the Upper East Side alike." The city shut a firehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so residents flocked there to squat in the firehouse until it reopened 16 months later. "New Yorkers feared being shut out of the political life of their city. Occupying public institutions was a way of reclaiming them, of insisting that the city should work for all those who lived in it." Now, we often remember those who balanced the New York budget but forget the activists. But "the demonstrations of that time seem oddly prophetic, a first salvo of protest against the age of austerity we still live in today," Phillips-Fein writes. "Then as now, people protested the power of a small economic elite to decide the fate of cities and even nations."

Joan Vennochi on Elizabeth Warren Though Elizabeth Warren must still win her party's nomination in order to challenge Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, liberals have already taken to her and she's attracted several high-profile donors. "Getting an early jump on an election that is still more than a year away, a New York Times editorial rhapsodized about Warren's appeal, and The Harvard Crimson followed up with an endorsement," writes The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi. Brown has tried to label Warren as "elitist," and Warren seemingly played into this when she promised to win "the hick vote." "Massachusetts Republicans swiftly circulated the snippet to buttress a picture of liberal elitism they didn't have to paint themselves." But "They took it a ridiculous step too far, by demanding an apology from Warren. They must have forgotten about Brown's refusal to apologize for anything," Vennochi writes, including his web site's apparent plagiarism scandal. In fact, Warren is polling well against Brown, and 21 percent of voters said her Harvard associations make them more likely to vote for her, while 63 percent said it makes no difference. "As scrutiny of Brown intensifies, it's clear a big part of his game plan involves trying to hang two signs around Warren's neck: liberal elitist and Washington insider." And while Politico reported that $17,000 in contributions came from congressional Democrats' PACs, Warren counters that she has received money from 11,000 Massachusetts donors. Warren faces the sexist charge that she's too similar to Brown's fallen opponent in the last Senate race, Martha Coakley, but Warren should be able to counter that charge as she has the others Brown has thrown at her.

Ezra Klein on Sen. Ron Wyden When Sen. Ron Wyden's staff is tired, or even when they are rallying, they have a catch phrase: "You got a problem? Ron Wyden has a comprehensive, bipartisan solution to fix it," reports Ezra Klein in a Bloomberg View column. "It's true," Klein says. "The country has problems. And Ron Wyden has comprehensive, bipartisan proposals for fixing them."  Wyden has joined forces with Republicans to offer concrete solutions to the tax code and to health care reform. The tax plan is "not as radical as some other ideas out there, but then, neither is the political system. I would bet that Wyden's plan ends up pretty close to what we eventually get." And if Republicans seek to reform health care rather than undo what's done, Klein says Wyden's proposals would be a good starting point. The plan put forward in 2008 and 2009, "which eventually attracted a half-dozen Republican co-sponsors, was what health-care reform would have looked like if the Senate was run by a bipartisan commission of policy wonks." Some find his intensity weird, Klein says, "but Wyden isn't the weird one. It's his colleagues -- the ones who aren't releasing a steady stream of proposals -- who are weird." If an alien were to read our Constitution, Klein says, he would imagine the government functions with Congress leading and the president overseeing their initiatives. The reality is the opposite. "The vastly more common path is for the president to ask Congress for legislation on health care or education or jobs or infrastructure and then for Congress to begin some sort of (usually unsuccessful) process." That's because party leaders in Congress cooperate with those in the White House to coordinate agendas. But Wyden operates differently. "Washington's wonkish senator might have comprehensive, bipartisan plans to fix America's problems, but he doesn't have a way to fix America's politics."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.