Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts following the 2nd Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee Meeting

Over the weekend the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee reconvened in Washington (yes, sans FHQ) to further cement the rules governing the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination. The set of rules coming out of this meeting will go before the full DNC in St. Louis next month for approval. In its initial meeting in May, the committee made quick work of the most of the rules -- only tweaking some of the particulars from the 2008 rules -- but following discussion, tabled most of the more contentious issues that concerned some of the recommendations made by the Democratic Change Commission. Namely, what to do with the superdelegates' influence, how to make more uniform the caucus process across states, and how to curb frontloading. For our part, FHQ will focus on the last of those in this initial post, but will return to the other issues later. [Side note: And yes, I do need to put this all together with the changes the Republicans have proposed as well. FHQ has neglected the much more interesting and consequential Republican rules-making process. Amends will be made, I assure you, dear readers.]

Now, some have called the rules recommendations that came out of the this meeting and the earlier Republican meeting, the "most significant alteration to the primary calendars since '68..." The McGovern-Fraser reforms fundamentally reshaped the way in which presidential nominees were chosen from that point forward. They turned presidential primaries and caucuses from non-binding contests meant to influence party leaders at the national convention into binding contests that determined to some degree the level of support candidates would receive at the convention. The primary calendars after that point evolved, and though the negative effects of frontloading were being discussed as early as the Hunt Commission (the pre-1984 cycle's equivalent of the Democratic Change Commission), it took until 1988 and into the '90s for the full effects of McGovern-Fraser to be felt in terms of the calendar. And, of course, these were unintended consequences of those reforms.

Perhaps you can tell, I don't particularly like the comparison to the 1968 Chicago convention's reform measures. FHQ also has another problem with this comparison.* As I alluded to above, it overstates matters. Both parties have recognized frontloading as a "problem" for several cycles now. And it is no small feat that both the DNC and RNC determined that the best way to combat the problem was to work together, representing a unified front against would-be rule breakers (Florida and Michigan, I'm looking in your direction.). That fact alone is significant in and of itself, but this process is only in its first phase: rules formation. The national parties will have to ratify those changes in order to end this part of the cycle.

The next phase will play out through much of next year. It is one thing to institute new rules, but it is another to have the states go along with those changes. A good first step is to have both parties on the same page, but Florida and Michigan (and all the pre-February 5, 2008 states but Nevada and Iowa on the Republican side) may have set a precedent in 2008. And with so many states having to move the dates on which their primaries are held to comply with the new rules, there is more incentive than ever to shirk.

That was the real message that came out of all of these meetings on both sides. Both parties are together in terms of their calendar set ups, but the sanctions did not change in the least from 2008. Yes, the Democrats bumped up their incentives for states electing to hold later contests, but that has proven ineffective in the past. The true effect of one of those 2008 sanctions likely won't be felt until 2012 anyway. That the Democrats stripped candidates of half their delegates if they campaigned in a state in violation of the timing rules was very crafty. It kept Obama and Edwards among others out of Florida and (they took themselves off the ballot in) Michigan. That has the effect of making a state meaningless or at least far less influential than otherwise. And that penalty is back for the 2012 cycle. States might have thought twice about flaunting the rules if that sanction was in place on the Republican side. Of course, it is a Democratic sanction and I doubt it will matter much if the Democratic Party strips Obama of half his delegates in a state in violation (they won't). With all the action on the Republican side, a promising sanction won't mean a whole lot.

As I said over the weekend on Twitter, it only takes one state to unravel the best of intentions and trigger a calendar somewhere between what the parties want and where things were in 2008. So, while tweaking the timing of contests is unique in the post-reform era, it isn't that fundamental a change in the grand scheme of things and certainly won't be if states don't comply.

*Another issue is that the parties did voluntarily change their rules to allow January and February contests over the last decade and a half. That was at least an equivalent change to what has been proposed for 2012 (proportionality rules excluded).

No comments: