Sunday, January 22, 2023

On "The People of New Hampshire vs. Joe Biden"

Politico's Ryan Lizza recently sat down with Ray Buckley, the longtime New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, for a conversation about the fallout in the Granite state since the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) adopted President Biden's presidential primary calendar proposal back in December.

This is a really fascinating conversation with a few items that were new to me in the context of this brewing back and forth between New Hampshire Democrats and the national party. But it was a conversation that, given who was on the other end of the line, was focused on one side of that back and forth. That is both understandable and fine. 

What was perhaps less so was the number of times Lizza dipped into the well to use phrases like "Biden screwed you" or "Democrats betrayed New Hampshire." There was nothing in this conversation that backed those notions up, even with a New Hampshire-centric focus. And I get it. This is an important story. Well, FHQ thinks so anyway. But primary calendar stories are inevitably not clickbait. Trust me, they are not. So Lizza tried a bit too hard to play to his audience -- Buckley -- and/or to spice up a story that, again, while important, lacks a natural spice. 

Again, I get it. 

And fortunately, Buckley, for his part, never took that "betrayal/screwed" bait. In fact, the story Buckley told about the period leading up to the DNCRBC decision on the calendar proposal underlined that. He described to Lizza how the New Hampshire congressional delegation had met with Biden on the Monday before the president's letter to the DNCRBC members -- the one first revealing the calendar proposal -- on Wednesday. Buckley said that Biden on that Monday thanked the four members of the all-Democratic New Hampshire delegation for their points (on the Granite state primary and the 2024 calendar) and gave no indication of what was coming. He did not, in other words, thank them for their points defending the first-in-the-nation primary and make any promises that that would continue. 

Now, FHQ will argue, as it had elsewhere in this space, that what set expectations high for New Hampshire dodging the bullet again in 2024 was that the conventional wisdom that had developed before December 1 was that the Iowa caucuses would be nixed and all the other pre-window states -- New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in that order -- would move up and room would be made in late February for a midwestern alternative (Michigan) before Super Tuesday in early March. That was the reporting. Basically, that New Hampshire would shift into the very first position, not just the first primary position. But that was the reporting without one major component: the president had not weighed in. Biden ultimately did provide input on the eve of the DNCRBC meeting on December 2. One will excuse New Hampshirites for suffering from whiplash after going from thinking the primary was safe one day and knowing they were in for a battle with the president/DNC the next. 

But seemingly no assurances were made that New Hampshire would retain its position in the primary calendar order. It is just that the president held his input on the calendar until the very end. But betrayal? Screwed? The record really does not reflect that.

However, that is small(er) potatoes in the full context of what is actually going on between the White House/DNC and New Hampshire Democrats on the issue of the Granite state's 2024 presidential primary. The biggest shortcoming throughout the whole conversation was the omission of the rules as they will exist with respect to punishments in the 2024 cycle. Lizza and Buckley continually cited part of the rules with respect to rogue state contests. That, in New Hampshire's case, if Democrats in the Granite state conduct a primary before the February 6 slot set aside for them in the newly adopted calendar proposal, then the party would lose delegates to the national convention.1 That ground has been covered both in this conversation and elsewhere. 

But neither Lizza nor Buckley made mention of the penalties for candidates who campaign in states with rogue contests. The same DNC rules that have been enhanced for the 2024 cycle. That those candidate penalties were ignored was particularly glaring in light of the emphasis Buckley placed on advanced planning by past Democratic incumbent presidents. The chair made a point in his conversation with Lizza to link how both Bill Clinton (in 1995) and Barack Obama (in 2011) set up shop in New Hampshire in August before the primary and the subsequent success New Hampshire Democrats had in general elections in those cycles. It is a valid point. 

Yet, under the newly adopted rules -- rules that have been finalized for 2024 other than the calendar portion of them -- candidates cannot campaign in a state with a rogue contest. Otherwise, such a candidate would forfeit any delegates won in that primary or caucus. Under those rules, candidate Biden cannot campaign in New Hampshire in or ahead of 2024 if the presidential primary in the Granite state is not on February 6. The broadened definition of campaigning in the 2024 DNC rules includes setting up shop in New Hampshire in the way Buckley described. That also answers 1) why Biden cannot file to appear on the New Hampshire primary ballot -- that is "campaigning" too under the definition -- and 2) why Biden could not appear/campaign in the state until after the primary (whenever it may be).

Those are important facts about the contours of the current divide between New Hampshire Democrats and the White House/national party that never came up in the conversation. And again, it is a glaring omission. More so, when one considers the hypothesis that dawned on Lizza midway through one of his questions late in the conversation: that it would be better for New Hampshire if Biden ultimately did not seek reelection. In other words, there would be an open and competitive Democratic nomination race in 2024 that would early and often bring candidates back into the Granite state. 

Not necessarily. 

Now, there are not a lot of delegates at stake in New Hampshire, a reality Lizza raised at least once. Are candidates going to care that they may lose out on a handful of delegates that would only have gotten them a tiny fraction of the way toward the total needed to continue to be competitive for, much less clinch, the nomination? Would the potential win -- even a win in a "state-sponsored public opinion poll," even in a state where the results on the Democratic side are already heavily discounted because of demography in the state in the best of times -- outweigh those delegate penalties on candidates? 

In the case where Biden is running for renomination and is an advocate of a change at the top of the calendar? Yes. Yes, candidate Biden would care. If this DNCRBC-adopted calendar proposal is successfully adopted by the full DNC in early February, then the president will not be in the Granite state to organize for November 2024 until sometime after the likely January 2024 New Hampshire primary. Those will be the rules. The president will follow them. ...whether some "mechanic from Arkansas or Oklahoma" runs and wins in New Hampshire or not.

However, perhaps things look different if Biden does not seek reelection in 2024 and a bunch a prospective candidates mull whether to campaign (in violation of the rules) in a rogue New Hampshire. Maybe. But that way peril lies for prospective candidates. Take the case of Michigan in 2008 under a set of DNC rules where national party had the option to strip candidates of any delegates won in a rogue contest. Some candidates like Hillary Clinton decided to stay on the ballot of the Michigan primary. Others, like Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, opted to remove their names from the ballot. The Florida and Michigan situation was already messy in 2008 without that wrinkle.  Having to determine an equitable way to allocate delegates after the fact in a rogue contest where some candidates were on the ballot and others were not was not easy, and New Hampshire Democrats would be signing up for that role in a cycle where DNC rules now require the stripping of those delegates from candidates. Memories of Florida and Michigan in 2007-08 alone may be enough to deter some candidates in an open Democratic presidential nomination race in New Hampshire in 2023-24. And that is without considering that the New Hampshire results are already discounted in the press and by the Democratic primary electorate because of its lack of diversity. 

Folks, this is not a slam dunk for New Hampshire. Things may be better for Democrats in the state if Biden opts not to run, but they will not necessarily be markedly better. Candidates running against the national party may be more inclined to take a chance. But what does that get them? A feather in the cap that may work with anti-establishment voters in subsequent states. Who fits that profile when voting starts in 2024 may be a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, but it is not now. 

Look, this calendar shake up remains a gamble for Biden and the DNC for the reasons Buckley cited. But New Hampshire Democrats are gambling too, gambling that the old rules of thumb will once again apply in 2024. And it just is not clear that that is the case in a cycle when New Hampshire, for the first time since 1980, is likely not directly protected by DNC rules.

Again, this is a great conversation between Lizza and Buckley. If you are interested in the 2024 calendar machinations like FHQ is, then you should listen to it. But take it with a grain of salt. Take it with a grain of salt because it is 1) understandably New Hampshire-centric and 2) it does not fully account for the rules as they will exist for the 2024 cycle. 

And those rules should be given some attention. 

1 And yes, the delegate reduction is something that would happen outside of the control of New Hampshire Democrats. The state party is in control of neither the governor's mansion nor the General Court -- the legislature -- in Concord. Of course, neither Lizza nor Buckley spent any time discussing alternate routes New Hampshire Democrats could take to comply with the proposed DNC rules outside of utilizing the presidential primary option. But again, that is understandable given the framing of the story/conversation.

No comments: