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The Paralyzingly High Stakes Of The N.H. Primary

A woman listens intently to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a speech given at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on February 7, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman listens intently to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a speech given at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on February 7, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

MOULTONBOROUGH, N.H. -- Clarity will be the missing element this Election Day. The clouds could mean imminent snow or sleet or rain or, more likely, all three. The ambiguous sky reflects what so many voters like myself are feeling on this New Hampshire primary day.

We’ve been talking a lot up here about the weather and about the thickness of the lake ice, about the boomeranging cycles of cold and warm that in the last few weeks have threatened both the annual pond hockey tournament and the ice fishing derby. Chatting about the bad choices made the other night by a drunken snowmobiler who plowed into a bob house on Meredith Bay is just another way of not talking about the choice the rest of us need to make in the voting booth on Tuesday.

Never have more voters been more uncertain, pinballing between the pragmatism of Amy Klobuchar and the passion of Elizabeth Warren, bouncing between Joe Biden’s past and Pete Buttigieg’s promise. We worry about age, or about gender. We worry about too little experience, or about outdated experience. We worry about political labels in a way we haven’t since Michael Dukakis refused to embrace his liberal bona fides.

... recorded votes and advanced degrees tell us nothing definitive about which of these candidates can best a cynical circus performer at the height of his career.

The true believers are the only voters who will face their ballots unconflicted, the certitude of the supporters of Bernie Sanders equal to the ardor of the acolytes of Donald Trump. For the rest of us, there is panic-approaching-paralysis, a dread that the wrong choice could deliver a second term to the corrupt and dangerously unhinged occupant of the White House.

The way in which the looming general election dwarfs the primaries underscores the perversity of this political season. Serious voters trying to assess the relative merits of a Democratic candidate’s policy credentials or health care plans cannot get the Republican president’s taunts out of their heads: Pocahontas, Burisma, Crazy Socialist, Alfred E. Neuman, Sleepy Joe, Little Mike.

Mike Kruneir was selling the “Faces of the Democratic Party” outside the Rex Theater before a Joe Biden rally, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Mike Kruneir was selling the “Faces of the Democratic Party” outside the Rex Theater before a Joe Biden rally, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Should we vote for the candidate with the most coherent foreign policy proposals for the Mideast or the one who can bring the insult dog in the Oval Office to heel on the debate stage? Does being tough mean an ability to make hard economic choices in the federal budget or to meet childish mockery with sober maturity? Since the adolescent-in-chief’s behavior is nothing if not unpredictable, how can voters reliably discern which of the candidates can meet both standards?

New Hampshire voters know what is at stake. The reality TV show Trump orchestrated to masterful, if debasing, effect in the U.S. House chamber at the State of the Union address last week is what awaits the Democratic nominee in the fall. We can be forgiven for worrying that position papers and recorded votes and advanced degrees tell us nothing definitive about which of these candidates can best a cynical circus performer at the height of his career.

The state’s Democratic establishment is split among the candidates. The Union-Leader endorsed Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota after rejecting the others for “weaknesses, whether of age, inexperience or a far-left agenda that thrills some liberals but is ripe for exploitation in a mainstream general election.” The Concord Monitor and The Boston Globe abandoned tradition and chose not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary at all, a decision that reflects both the waning influence of editorial endorsements and the growing detachment of once-great-newspapers from their communities.

I’ll be there when the polls open at 7 a.m., probably still unsure for whom I’ll be voting.

At least the Globe and the Monitor did not take the restaurant menu approach to political endorsements adopted by the New York Times before Iowa. Failing to make a definitive choice, the newspaper of record instead selected one from Column A and one from Column B, endorsing both Warren and Klobuchar, perhaps calculating that it takes two female senators to equal one presidential nominee.

The New Hampshire primary ballot will provide voters here with no such option. On Tuesday, we will either finally make a choice or decide to sit out the first primary in the most consequential presidential contest in modern history. I’ll be there when the polls open at 7 a.m., probably still unsure for whom I’ll be voting.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University.

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