AMERICAN politics remains interesting in part because of its charming perversity. It refuses to behave the way its managers try to make it behave.
The law of unintended consequences has been nowhere more evident in recent years than on the occasion of Super Tuesday. (Super Bowl! Superman! Super Tuesday? Must everything in America be called super in an effort to make it seem important?)
A decade ago, the wisemen of the Democratic Party had an idea. It was called "front loading." They would conspire to move a block of primaries nearer the front of the nomination calendar and thereby increase the chance for their candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to wrap up the nomination early.
Theoretically, this scheme would avoid the messy, bloody, protracted nomination fights that characterized 1972, 1976, and 1980. Early on the pundits and odds-makers, the political and media elites, had made Mr. Mondale the inevitable nominee. Therefore, so the logic went, why not get it over early.
The region most controlled by the Democratic Party was the South - Southern governors, Southern legislatures, solid majorities of Democratic registered voters. (Never mind that these states had been voting Republican in national elections.) So dates for presidential primaries could be moved forward with a degree of ease.
It was all justified on the ground that the Democratic Party had to win back the South if it were to regain the White House. President Carter had demonstrated this point clearly in 1976.
All went well until the element of benign perversity emerged in the form of the independently minded voters of New Hampshire, who did not consider themselves part of the deal. They gave a plurality of votes to a "dark horse" senator from Colorado. Caucus attendees in Maine soon followed and the stage was set for a giant boomerang.
Of the nine Super Tuesday primary states that year, seven - including the giant Florida - went for the Coloradan and two for the former vice president. Mr. Mondale said later that if either of the states voting for him (one of which went into his column by only 4,000 votes) had gone otherwise, he would have dropped out and the race would have been over very early - but not quite as the wisemen had intended. Nonetheless, a major Eastern newspaper characterized the 7-2 results as a "split." Suddenly the po litical and media elites were not prepared for this race to be over quite so early.
What does all this history mean for 1992? Are we, like the Bourbons, condemned to forget nothing and to learn nothing?
Lesson No. 1: It doesn't begin until it begins. Until the voters of New Hampshire are heard from, it is all fluff, hype, mirrors, and smoke. To the pundit industry, Archie Bunker, speaking for all America, would say, "Stifle yourselves." Let the voters decide who the serious candidates are, not a handful of puffed-up news editors in New York and Washington.
Lesson No. 2: Don't expect the same "boomerang,slingshot," or "surfing" phenomenon to occur in 1992 as was reported (wrongly) to have occurred in 1984 between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday. There is no establishment candidate this year, although some publications and pundits tried to create one in Bill Clinton in January.
In addition, the plodding dark horse, Paul Tsongas, had the misfortune to overtake the "frontrunner" Clinton before the balloting in New Hampshire, thus reducing the upset quality of his performance.
Lesson No. 3: It isn't over until it's over. At the risk of wearing out the analogy, after the 1984 Super Tuesday former Vice President Mondale put together a string of industrial-state primary victories. This led unsophisticated political historians to write that the Coloradan had been a two-week sensation who disappeared thereafter.
Wrong. After victories in Ohio and Indiana, the Colorado senator then won 11 of the last 12 primaries, all in his native West. So don't let the pundits try to wrap this race up too quickly. Regardless of the results of next week's Super Tuesday contests, which could well be inconclusive, recent history suggests that the nomination contest will last throughout the primary season.
Lesson No. 4: Do not expect the finalists in this field of Democratic contenders, all of whom (except for Jerry Brown) are on the track for the first time, to have organized sophisticated campaign organizations in Super Tuesday and subsequent states. It is virtually impossible.
To a large degree the two or three finalists must organize as they go along, raising and spending campaign funds almost daily. Only an incumbent or former national office holder can mount a 50-state campaign. Others are dependent on the whims, quirks, and uncertainties of media coverage and the power of their ideas.
Here, finally, is the great undiscovered secret of American - perhaps democratic - politics. Ideas have power. In a nation approaching desperation for leadership, and a leadership with vision, and a vision based upon a new and powerful understanding of the post-cold-war world, he or she who possesses these ideas possesses the magic fire.
This fire represents the key to a new American perestroika, an era of change and reform. This fire transcends polls, media spots, consultants, money, and wisemen. It electrifies the electorate. It scorns the skeptics. It confounds the establishment. It energizes a campaign, a candidate, and a nation. The fire of a new vision is more important than all the Super Tuesdays in the world. If any candidate locates this magic fire, this Excalibur, he will be the next president of the United States.