Paul Greenberg

Memo to the nation: We really do need a better schedule of presidential primaries, one that tests the candidates over time, not in just a series of uncoordinated jump starts that could settle both parties’ nominations almost a year before their nominating conventions.

A staggered system of regional primaries would be a big improvement; so would a system that lets smaller states go first, followed by the larger prizes later. With a schedule of primaries like this year’s, there may be time for the candidates to strategize, but not to think. The current hodgepodge of primaries prompts people to pick a candidate to root for (Americans love sporting events) but it leaves people little time to ponder their choice.

There’s no fixing the system in time for this election year, but at least this past week’s debates, after so many face-offs that had too many candidates and not enough substance, did tell voters what each party was about at this fluid moment of American history. You could scarcely miss the contrast:

The dominant themes of the Republican debate were freedom, opportunity, economic growth, national security and life. All of which involve duty, sacrifice and risk, which aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers in this new Rome.

There was some real friction detectable in the GOP face-off, both personal and political, between John McCain and Mitt Romney, the Big Two. Mike Huckabee was on hand to referee, and Ron Paul was there as a reminder that the paranoid style in American politics is still very much alive and in full populist, goldbug, isolationist, xenophobic bloom.

This could be Mitt Romney’s last hurrah this foreshortened election year. He’s the Thomas E. Dewey of this campaign, the perfectly groomed and well-spoken CEO of a candidate who has a knack for saying just the right thing, whatever it may be at the time, but just isn’t trusted, or at least liked. He’s the model candidate on paper, but not at the polls.

The dominant theme of the Democratic debate was quite different, namely, how to expand the power of government so it can give us all we want, including peace and plenty. Not to mention self-esteem, diversity, general uplift and getting our own back. Elect one of us, said the last two Democratic candidates standing, or rather sitting in a Hollywood theater, and the poor we will no longer have with us, health care will be available for all, and wars will end.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.