Monday, May 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee Meeting

As FHQ alluded to on Friday, we sat in on the festivities at the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting on both Friday and Saturday. The intent of the meeting was to begin reconciling the recommendations of the Democratic Change Commission with the political and structural realities on the ground with regard to the rules governing the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination.

[For a blow-by-blow account of the two day rule-a-thon, you can follow our real-time Twittering at @FHQ.]

As some have already said, this was a jump off the deep end into the minutiae of delegate selection rules. However, the committee members revved up for the discussions surrounding the three areas the Change Commission was tasked with re-examining: primary and caucus timing, superdelegate reduction/elimination and caucus rule uniformity. The most animated portions of the proceedings came at the tail end of Friday's session and at the beginning of Saturday's. Of the 21 rules -- based on the 2008 delegate selection rules -- Rules 9 (superdelegates) and 11 (timing) seemed to elicit the most concern; the departure from the '08 rules the Change Commission's recommendations represented did, at least. The decisions on both rules were tabled at this meeting pending further discussion at the July 9 and 10 meeting in Washington that will finalize a set of rules for the full DNC to vote on in August.

But let's look at some of the discussion around these two issues from Friday and Saturday:

Well, if the Change Commission's recommendation is approved, they won't be superdelegates anymore. They'll be NPLEOs (National Pledged Party Leader and Elected Official). That's right. The recommendation calls for the elimination of add-on delegates and a change to the superdelegates as we knew them in 2008. Under these rules, the party and elected officials would lose their independence in 2012. They would be proportionally pledged to candidates based on the results in the primaries or caucuses in their states.

As you might imagine, this didn't sit particularly well with a group of folks (the RBC) who happen to be superdelegates. No one seemed to like the loss of independence (read: influence). That loss prompted RBC member, Mame Reiley, to ask if leaders shouldn't be able to lead instead of follow. She cited Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama ahead of the Massachusetts primary (and Hillary Clinton's win there) as an example. In other words, how could you tell an elite within the party to support someone they don't want to support (with the only alternative being to become a non-voting delegate)? To FHQ's mind this isn't any different from the average delegate moving over to the actual nominee at the convention despite that earlier pledge. It happens routinely. Still, the members of the RBC took issue with the proportionality calculus and how that would play out in reality. Some made the argument that it was the job of the RBC to plan for the worst case scenario, a floor fight over the nomination. But while that may be true, it isn't likely to be the reality in 2012. As RBC member, Ray Buckley said, "I'm ambivalent about this...because I don't think the president will be challenged in 2012."

There were some alternate proposals bandied about. The one that seemed to resonate was one that had alternate delegates becoming actual delegates as a means of diluting the influence of the superdelegates. This seemed like a clever enough idea, but obviously needs to be fleshed out some. That represents quite an expansion of the number of delegates which has implications for floor seating because there would still have to be alternates who also get a spot on the floor even if they are not voting.

I don't see that proposal making it nor do I necessarily see the Change Commission's proposal getting through the full DNC. One thing we can likely count on is the elimination of the add-on delegates. Beyond that, there may not be a whole lot of movement on the superdelegates issue. With Obama running unchallenged in 2012 (more than likely), that group will return to its spot in the background of the process.

[Before I shift gears to the timing issue, there's one other point I'd like to raise about superdelegates and conventions. It was interesting to me from my basement position in the ivory tower to see how these matters were viewed by some of the elites within the party. Academics tend to take a macro view of conventions. They matter in that they move the needle in the polls in their immediate aftermath. But as Seth Masket pointed out last week when the GOP tapped Tampa to be its 2012 convention site, the link between conventions location and electoral results is tenuous at best. The same holds for conventions overall. But members of the parties involved in the process don't necessarily share the same view. Instead of a macro view, they adopt a micro view. To the elites, winning in November matters, but things like convention seating and hotel arrangements matter. One of the DNC staffers was joking with me before the Saturday session about the Michigan delegates having to stay in Boulder during the 2008 convention in Denver. Rick Stafford, and RBC member from Minnesota, said the Democrats from the Land of 10,000 Lakes suffered a similar fate for holding a pre-window caucus in 1988; staying "somewhere in Georgia." These folks will protect that turf unless compelled to do otherwise. The bottom line is that these sorts of things matter to folks within the RBC and that obviously has the potential to impact the rules that emerge from this process.]

This issue was why FHQ went to Washington for this meeting in the first place. Presidential primary and caucus scheduling (or movement from cycle to cycle) is our bread and butter. And while Tom Schaller is right that not much substance came out of this meeting, the group will have a large discussion in July that will have found its roots in the groundwork laid on Friday and Saturday.

First, the Change Commission has called for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to retain their privileged positions in the pre-window period of the primary calendar from 2008. The Democrats got a major assist on making that recommendation a reality from the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee last week. The TDSC followed the Change Commission's lead in not only keeping those four states early but in knocking back the start date of the process from January to February and preventing all other states from going before a the first Tuesday in March (A return to -- at least for the Democrats -- something akin to the 2000 primary calendar.). That's a big deal and it certainly helps both parties on the enforcement front somewhat. If both parties have the same timing rules, it makes it far less likely that a Republican-controlled state government, for example, will opt to flaunt Democratic Party rules to maintain or move to an earlier, pre-window date on the calendar (This assumes a scenario where the Democrats adopt the Change Commission recommendations on timing, but the Republicans are more open to allowing earlier contests.). Enforcement of the delegate selection rules is more difficult when the parties aren't on the same page. However, just because it appears that the parties will, I won't call it coordinate, but correspond with each other on timing, doesn't necessarily mean there won't be any rogue states like Florida and Michigan in 2012. Enforcement of the timing strictures was one of the sticking points with members of the RBC during this discussion. In the end, it really wasn't dealt with, but pushed to the July meeting instead. There are enticements (bonus delegates) for going later, but will that get the 19 states currently scheduled (according to state law) in February to move their primaries in accordance with the possible rules changes? That is the question at this point. Nothing has worked thus far on that front as a means of curbing frontloading, but both parties will have to hope that all works out for the best when and if both produce similar calendars for 2012.

There was also a varied discussion over the Change Commission's recommendation for encouraging more regionally or subregionally clustered primaries. More questions than answers emerged from this particular topic. What constituted a cluster? Are big states like California and New York large enough on their own to constitute clusters? How do you get states to cluster? What enticements can be used? How do you go about scheduling which cluster goes first? Getting states to cluster is the conundrum. It seems that Democratic-controlled states would be better able to cluster states controlled by the Republicans or with some form or fashion of divided government. [Truth be told, that is one of the major findings of my dissertation on frontloading decisions over time. But who am I to toot my own horn?] Some states are better able to move and the creation of clusters also seems as if it might be fraught with the same sort of Iowa/New Hampshire privileged position issue. [Hello unintended consequences.] I don't know that there is any way of getting to this point other than to allow states to come to clustering conclusions organically. [Think Potomac Primary or the Great Lakes or Yankee Primaries in 1996.]

One final thing that received quite a lot of discussion was the idea of opening the pre-window period to a bidding process for those four slots. A similar proposal system was used by the Levin Commission in 2006 before it added Nevada and South Carolina to the Democratic pre-window period for 2008. But RBC member, Michael Steed, proposed opening all four slots (including Iowa's and New Hampshire's) up for 2012. This received some support in the room, but was shot down by RBC member, Jeff Berman, shot that down, saying it was too late in the process for that (especially if a set of rules was going to be in place for the full DNC to consider and vote on in August). The proposal process was already well underway at this point in the cycle before 2008. Another talking point concerned just adding an additional slot or two in the pre-window period. This, too, was denied, but an amendment was added to the rule that this be considered for 2016. That was passed while the rest of the timing issue was tabled for the July meeting.

At this point, the calendar will is very likely to be adopted by the full DNC, but the questions of clustering and enforcement still remain in shadowy territory. There are no clear answers for either.

Parting Shots
The theme of this meeting was the balance between crafting a set of delegate selection rules that rectifies some of the issues raised by the Democrats' 2008 primary race and reelecting the president. To some members of the RBC those two were countervailing forces. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument that RBC member Alice Germond made is a tough one to counter. Indeed. Why mess with a formula that worked? Upon further reflection, FHQ is not terribly sympathetic to that line of thought. Now, we don't have a dog in this fight. Reform or not, this site will have an eye to the 2012 rules regardless. However, this argument seems like a veiled attempt to maintain the status quo. After all, how much of the election results in November 2008 were attributable to what happened in the winter and early spring? A Democrat would have won in November regardless, whether it was Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. [Well, Edwards would have been in some hot water in August 2008 with the Rielle Hunter ordeal if he was the presumptive nominee at that point.] At the margins, the competitive races in Indiana and North Carolina may have helped lay the groundwork for Obama and the Democrats successfully turning those long-standing red states blue. But those 26 electoral votes would not have been decisive. They were luxuries that a severely toxic 2008 Republican brand afforded the Obama campaign and the Democrats trying to elect the president.

That said, here are a few things to note. The status quo with some minor changes is probably what both the Democrats and Republicans will produce for this upcoming cycle. There were some problems with the rules in 2008, but that was mostly a function of a close Democratic race. In the post-reform era, that has been more an anomaly rather than commonplace. The best argument for the status quo is not that it worked in 2008 or any other year, but rather that wholesale changes to the system could lead to unintended consequences. For example, no one in the Democratic Party in 1984 could have imagined the potential impact superdelegates -- new in 1984 -- would/could have had in the 2008 process. [This was a point that was raised by someone on the RBC at the meeting this weekend.]

Now, some of the points outlined above regarding the status quo may be moot. It may not matter and here's why: The head of the Democratic Party may want to make the Democratic Change Commission's recommendations a reality. Changes to the rules are not likely to affect the president's chances at renomination. The likelihood of him being challenged for the Democratic Party nod is as close to nil as it gets at the moment. So, why not push these recommendations through? The DNC probably won't balk at the president if this is what he wants. But is that what the president wants? That's the $64 question; the one that is likely to determine the extent to which the Rules and Bylaws Committee goes along with the Change Commission's recommendations.

But we'll have to wait until the July meeting for that answer.

[For more, please go over to DemRulz and read Frank Leone's write up of the events from the weekend as well. He offers a different perspective; both legal and from within the DNC.]

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