Fergus Cullen: Halperin says NH not doing its job
We count on friends to tell us truths we might not want to hear. Time magazine reporter Mark Halperin believes New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary serves a national purpose, so when he told a Bedford audience this week that New Hampshire isn't living up to its responsibility as host of the event this time, his message was one of tough love.
Halperin, the co-author of the 2008 campaign best-seller 'Game Change,' was in town covering the 2012 presidential campaign, but he's thinking about how this primary will affect 2016. He doesn't like what he sees or what it portends.
'Town meetings have not been up to the standards of New Hampshire,' Halperin flatly told a bipartisan audience at a Politics and Eggs breakfast hosted by the New England Council, a regional business group.
Campaign events where candidates interact with real voters are fewer, shorter and less well-attended than in the past. Candidates are almost avoiding voters or just using them as props for an event or two a day, plays performed for the media. Except for Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, 'These aren't the hardest-working candidates in show business,' Halperin observed. Whole days go by without major candidates making any public appearances. They find it easier, cheaper and safer to limit their campaigning to debates, cable TV appearances, and Facebook - and we're letting them get away with it.
Consequently, 'We have seen few of the scenes we've seen in the past.' The signature moments of the 2008 primaries came when a woman asked Hillary Clinton a simple question at a Portsmouth breakfast and a Gold Star mother rose at a Wolfeboro town meeting to ask John McCain for a favor and a promise. The senators responded like humans, their voices cracked with authentic emotion, and revealed their true character. This primary is passing without a single telling exchange occurring at any town hall meeting for any candidate.
Last time, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani cut corners and voters punished them for faking it. This time candidates who do little campaigning get 25 percent in the polls without earning it. The whole point of the primary crucible - yielding tested, well-vetted candidates who know the people they ask to lead - is circumvented.
Halperin parceled out blame. Naming Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch - 'I didn't see any leadership on their parts' - Halperin faulted elected and party officials in both states for failing to make bipartisan common cause.
Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger, and Halperin criticized Secretary of State Bill Gardner - 'part Yogi Berra, part Yoda' - for threatening to hold the primary in December. Instead of talking about how the New Hampshire electorate is better informed and pays closer attention, how voters put candidates through their paces and expose the frauds, how New Hampshire reduces a presidential race to a human scale and tests candidates in a way that serves the nation well, what the rest of the country heard was: 'It's ours and we'll maneuver to keep it.'
With a pointed nod at prominent Mitt Romney supporter Tom Rath, seated up front, Halperin faulted the early states for tolerating candidates who campaigned in rule-breaking states. Florida should have been the bad guy, but New Hampshire came out looking selfish.
Halperin reserved the biggest share of the blame for the voters for not demanding more from the candidates. He didn't put it this way, but this was his point:
If New Hampshire voters are willing to settle for watching Herman Cain do a five-minute hit on 'Hannity' instead of insisting he show up in person; if Rick Perry can get away with asking Saint Anselm College to assemble students for a speech and call it a town meeting; if Newt Gingrich appears in New Hampshire living rooms only via the television; if voters think liking candidates on Facebook is as good as shaking their hands; then New Hampshire voters become no different than voters in any other state.
And if New Hampshire voters are content to watch the process passively instead of shaping and participating in it, then the state risks forfeiting the nation's trust to host the first-in-the-nation primary.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.