Friday, December 1, 2017

At the End, a Beginning: The Unity Reform Commission Winds Down

With the final meeting of the DNC Unity Reform Commission on the horizon, some focus has again been given to the group tasked with reexamining both the presidential nomination process and the party organization itself.

FHQ must confess that it missed Laura Barrón-López's Washington Examiner piece on the URC over the holiday week last week, but it is a good example of attention that is shifting back to the group as it finishes up its work. But the story also overplays the Dems in disarray angle and misses the mark in a few other places.

On the former, it is prudent to provide some context. It is easy to say that there are tensions in a party and provide a couple of quotations from folks on opposite sides of the spectrum from within the Democratic Party (or any party for that matter). The truth is that parties are often internally at odds and in both the best and worst of times. However, those schisms are amplified when a party is out of power in Washington, when it has fewer (or no) legislative and/or executive branch victories to ease (although not solve) the problems at the heart of those divisions. It would be a bigger story if Democrats were not divided about the future of their party after losing the White House and were thus facing a unified opposition in control of the federal government than if they were/are at odds. That -- being at odds -- is basically the expectation one should have in this context, and is often something that most quickly appears in nomination rules fights for the next cycle.

In that way, the Democrats now are in a position not unlike the Republicans in either 2009 or 2013, coming off a presidential loss and trying to find a way out of the wilderness. Indeed, it is still rather underappreciated just how harmonious -- or if not that, then non-controversial -- the rules-making process was in 2013-14 on the Democratic side. The difference, of course, was that the Democrats of 2013 were crafting rules after two consecutive presidential wins. Something had gone right enough in  the nomination processes of the 2008 and 2012 cycles that the party -- in this case, the party organization (DNC) -- had incentive to retain the same basic delegate selection rules structure.

So, are the Democrats divided on the 2020 rules and the future of the party? Sure, but that is what one should expect under the circumstances. That out-party tension is at least a part of the advantage incumbent presidents have in defending the White House (assuming said incumbent is not embattled at the top a divided party him- or herself).

With that contextual note inserted, how are the Democrats' tensions overstated in this Barrón-López piece with the Unity Reform Commission as the backdrop? The following are a few nits that FHQ would pick.

The lede is misleading enough.
"The ideological fight for the soul and future direction of the Democratic Party is about to boil over. A commission created in the aftermath of Democrats’ 2016 presidential primary is meeting in December for the last time to make reform recommendations. This meeting is going to be a doozy."
  • See, right from the top, there is a fight for the soul of the party. But again, one should expect as much. There was vigorous, rules-based soul-searching within the DNC in the early years post-reform after 1972, 1980, 1984 and to a lesser degree -- at least in scope of resulting rules changes -- in 1988, 2000 and 2004.
  • Just to be clear on the process of the Unity Reform Commission, the group originally planned to meet four times, but added the fifth (voting) meeting for December at its second meeting in San Antonio. That fifth meeting will be the final opportunity for the group to meet and vote on specific recommendations. However, it may not be the final time the group meets. As part of its charge, the Unity Reform Commission does not officially disband until it is the judgment of the group that the full DNC has fully considered the package of reform recommendations. Yes, the recommendations will first go to the Rules and Bylaws Committee, but if the RBC does not adopt the recommended rules changes within the first half of 2018, the URC recommendations will be placed before the full DNC at its next meeting. This may be the final public meeting, but the work of the commission may or may not be done in December. 

Another process point...
"Among the reforms being floated by members of the commission, four big ones stand out and are at the center of debate."
These four reforms are not being floated, nor do they stand out. They are the four areas the resolution creating the Unity Reform Commission laid out from day one. The mandate with regard to the superdelegates is the most specific, though some questions remain about implementation. Further, the DNC will be limited in what it can do in the areas of caucuses and opening primaries to independents. The area where the URC has the most latitude and the least guidance from the resolution is party reform.

And another process point...
“'I’m afraid this is a dog and pony show and they’re just playing this game,' said DNC member Nomiki Konst, who sits on the Unity Reform Commission."
'Tom Perez says I’m going to follow the unity commission — of course you’re going to follow the unity commission, because it’s stacked with all of your people, so you’re going to get the votes you want,' she [Nomiki Konst] said."
Look, Konst was a bomb thrower before the URC, is a bomb thrower now and will likely be one after the group has wrapped. And that is fine. There is absolutely a place for that -- a push for reform -- in the process. Yet, the charge that the commission is "stacked" glosses over enough of the process to make it unfair.

Again, turn to the resolution that created the Unity Reform Commission. That granted the Clinton team the ability to name ten members to the commission and the Sanders team an additional eight. Part of what got the Sanders folks to go along with the membership part of the resolution was that the new chair of the Democratic National Committee got to name an additional three members. If a Sanders-aligned or Sanders-sympathetic chair was elected post-election (2016), those three additional members could tip the balance in Sanders' direction.

But a Sanders-aligned candidate fell short of that goal and Tom Perez was elected DNC chair. That seems to have further swung the commission in a Clinton/establishment/current DNC direction. This has been the case since Perez was elected and filled out the remainder of the URC last spring. It is not new.

That Konst is voicing the "stacked" charge now is potentially telling. It says less about the URC being a "dog and pony show" and more about where the recommendations negotiations are heading/have headed since the Las Vegas meeting in October. That is to say, not far enough in the Sanders direction at crunch time.

This December URC meeting may, in fact, be a "doozy" but that is because the other four have been more about hearing presentations from a number of principals from each of the four areas the group was charged with reexamining. Those were about listening, learning and discussing whereas this fifth meeting will be more final, more decisive. Recommendations that will appear in the Unity Reform Commission report to the RBC will be settled.

But this will be the end to the beginning, not an end. The structure of the convention resolution allows the URC the ability to continue lobbying the DNC. That pressure would mean more, however, if the group comes to some consensus on some or all of its recommendations. Divisiveness coming out of the commission -- less of a clear mandate -- potentially makes it more likely that the full DNC maintains much of the status quo. Of course, the counterargument to that is that the losing faction retains some electoral leverage. The DNC would have to come some of the way toward the Sanders' positions on reform to keep them in the fold.

Granted, that did not work in after 1984 when remnants of the Hart and Jackson campaigns demanded changes to the rules. Nor did it work four years ago on the Republican side when demands were made by the Ron Paul/liberty/Tea Party faction which was in a similar position.

Again, the close of the working portion of the URC is the end of the beginning. The end on the 2020 rules comes in 2018.

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