The under-the-radar presidential candidate is determined to keep trying to get his message out, even if he can't get on the stage for this weekend's debates in New Hampshire.
The one-term Louisiana governor of the late '90s and early '80s has a soft spot for New Hampshire. It's where all is politically possible, where the underdog can hope, where McCain beats Bush. "By God," drawled Roemer by phone from Manchester this week, "that sounds American to me."
But the political churn that has seen candidates make their way from the edge of the debate stage to its center, largely through performances in prime-time, major-network TV match-ups, is "a threat to New Hampshire," Roemer says. It has lessened the importance of the state's retail, meet-and-greet, kick-the-tires presidential process, and left national media entities orchestrating New Hampshire's politics. Case study #1: Buddy Roemer's complete inability to get invited to those debates -- two more of which will be held in the Granite State this weekend.
"I'm 0-for-16 when it comes to nationally-televised debates," Roemer complained. It was, he said, his 106th straight day of campaigning in New Hampshire. "And I'm at a loss to know why I can't get a fair hearing."
As Roemer sees it, a big obstacle for him getting included in the debates is his pledge to only accept maximum donations of $100 -- a challenge to the business side of politics, consultants, and cable news. "Look at the sponsors," says Roemer. "It's the same three or four mega corporations. Look, I'm Harvard undergraduate, business major. I'm Harvard Business School. Hell, I know how the game works. I reject it."
But it's not just the money, explains Roemer. It's what ripples forth from it. Roemer directs me to pull up the New York Times' two-page spread from this past weekend that laid out in chart-form the major candidate's positions. (Though, of course, not Buddy's.) The issues are familiar. Abortion. Taxes and spending. Afghanistan. Energy. Immigration. Where, asks Roemer, is trade? Jobs? Campaign reform? "Those, in my opinion, are the issues, and the New York Times doesn't even ask them. I'll tell you why. The reporters listen to the debates, and get their 'important issues' from the questions that are asked." Ergo, "the debates are running the whole show."
"It's powerful." Roemer says, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's powerful."
Roemer is an imperfect messenger to highlight the imperfections of the primary process. He's raised little money. He lost an election to David Duke. He's not afraid of hyperbole. "You know, Jon Huntsman's trying to buy all the television he can get" in New Hampshire, he says, "and he can only spend four or five million." Huntsman, in truth, has spent far less.
Yet it's not immediately clear what makes Roemer's candidacy -- that of a former governor and four-term congressman who can talk competently and provocatively about China, economic reform, and transparency -- any more innately absurd than that of, say, a Michele Bachmann. Or a Herman Cain. Or a Rick Santorum. Is it crazy for the citizenry to blindly leave it up to CNN, or Fox News, or ABC to decide which candidates are patently absurd?
It is, says Roemer. And he has a few ideas on how to change things. First, New Hampshirites should insist the upcoming debates focus on New Hampshire issues -- relations with Canada, energy pipelines, and so on. "That would allow New Hampshire to have its fingerprints on even a national debate."
The bigger picture, says Roemer, is that we should all be having a national conversation about what primary contest debate criteria make sense. And once those are settled, we should insist they be as transparent as those used by the Commission on Presidential Debates for general election debates. "That's set. There's no surprise here. So you can set your strategy to get 15 percent," he said, describing the threshold for inclusion in general election debates. But in the primaries, the major networks call the shots, and often don't say much about their decision-making. "Even the participants are confused," says Roemer, pointing to former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Invited to the first debate in May, Johnson didn't get a call back up to the big show until September.
"Gary called me," said Roemer, "and said, 'What the hell is going on?'"
At the very least, having Roemer at the debates would add colorful directness. But that directness might also illuminate. The process, he argues, has done little to clarify how we as a country want to pick presidents. "If we end up with Romney vs. Obama," Roemer puts it, "there will be a huge question mark in the room. Who owns you, Mr. President?"
Roemer's still hopeful that he might yet be invited to this Saturday night's debate in Manchester, a ABC-WMUR production. A recent poll had him tied at 3 percent in New Hampshire with Rick Perry. The neighboring Boston Globe has editorialized for his inclusion.
In the meantime, Roemer tweets. And Facebooks. Huntsman has pooh-poohed social media's in-state usefulness, but Roemer argues that on-the-ground work fuels useful, near instant online feedback, and his tweeting the answers to debates he's been shut out of has gotten him its own kind of attention. It can be difficult to remember as online presidential politics has become normalized, but there was a time when connected technologies were thought to give the underdog a special shot.
"I had one or two percent in the last Iowa polling, and I was in Iowa one day in February," Roemer chuckled on caucus eve. "And I get two percent in the polling? That's strictly social media. That is the power of that."
When all was said and done, though, Roemer finished Iowa with just 31 votes.
The debates had been important, but time on-the-ground and retail campaigning proved their retained their pride of place, even so.
Image credit: Reuters