Tuesday, February 23, 2021

If It Was So Easy to Change Then It Would Have Changed By Now

FHQ read with some interest the latest editorial from Michelle Cottle at The New York Times before the weekend hit. It was one of a genre the vintage of which one sees in the seemingly lazy days between presidential nomination cycles. One can call those of that ilk the "it's time for a change (to the presidential nomination process)." Sure, they are around every cycle, but they tend to most often arise in the midst of (or perhaps just before) a new round of presidential primaries and caucuses. 

In other words, they often come too late. So in Cottle's defense, at least her call for reform is coming at a time in which it may actually matter: before the national parties set their rules for the upcoming cycle. Granted, FHQ's defense of the piece only goes about that far. Much of it leans on a sort of Green Lantern theory of presidential nomination reform. If only the interested players tried a bit harder, then all the ills of the process would be gone. But that theory and this piece ignore the realities of reform. 

If it was as easy to change the process as it is made out there, then certainly things would have changed by now, nearly half a century into the post-reform era. But those rules do not change with ease. They are and the presidential nomination process is a tremendous collective action problem for the parties. And while consensus may (or may not) exist to make changes, agreeing to what those tweaks will be is a much more difficult enterprise when considering the mix of interests involved: the national parties, the state parties, the state governments, the candidates and their proxies on rules-making bodies. Getting enough of those groups on the same page is tough enough in the abstract, but the climb is steeper still when the politics of any given moment intersect with the process. 

Now may be one of those times when the moment is right for change. Iowa Democrats bungled their caucuses in 2020. Neither primary or caucus electorate in Iowa nor New Hampshire matches well with the current constituency of the broader Democratic Party coalition of the moment. And there seems to be a willing candidate to fill their void on the primary calendar. Maybe the stars will align. However, missteps may scuttle any potential for change. Nevada Democrats may be at some risk of overplaying their hand. The conditions are right, but the provocative nature of their January primary bill may complicate its efforts, riling up not only New Hampshire as Cottle points out, but also the national party.

And that is what often gets lost in these primary reform prescriptions that pop up every four years. They can raise the ills of any given process, but often fail in considering the process for bringing about such a change. 

Take Cottle's consideration of caucuses in 2020. Caucuses are not new, nor are the problems associated with them. She notes that "caucuses are a convoluted, vaguely anti-democratic way to pick a nominee," and that "the Democratic National Committee urged the state parties to shift to primaries." The DNC did and as Cottle mentioned, most states responded. This was quietly a big deal for the DNC. It was a rules change that worked and worked really well. It was not a new directive from the national party to hold primaries because some states -- Kansas, for example -- are controlled by the Republican Party on the state level and were not open to establishing a primary. In fact, after years of caucusing in the face of unfunded (and ultimately cancelled) primaries, Republicans in the Sunflower states eliminated the primary option once and for all in 2015.

But even most states in that bind adapted. Most adopted party-run primary systems that had early and mail-in options for those seeking to participate in the process. Sure, the national party would prefer state government-run primaries, but lacking that alternative in some states produced something of a laboratory for innovative party-run primary plans. Best practices derived from those states may serve as a call to action in states like Iowa where there, for now, continue to be caucuses. But Iowa is also a state where the Republican Party is calling the shots in state government. There is the delicate balance to tread with New Hampshire, but there are some success stories from the 2020 cycle that should be celebrated rather than barely mentioned. Often it is those incremental changes that prove the most consequential. 
In the end, however, other changes -- like those to the beginning of calendar -- are tougher. Not impossible, but difficult. And it will take more than "the national party seiz[ing] the opportunity to shake even harder, reforming a system that’s increasingly out of touch with voters." It will take the national party working with interests on the ground in the states to make it happen. And as the last fifty years have shown, that is easier said than done. 

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