Monday, August 8, 2011

Why It Was Shrewd for the RNC to Punt on Tougher Penalties

FHQ, never one to draw attention away from an actual, seemingly meaningful Ames Straw Poll looming at week's end, wants to backtrack and offer a few thoughts on the RNC Rules Committee decision late last week to defer on harsher sanctions against states scheduling primaries and caucuses before March 6. The move was panned by some as a capitulation on the part of the national party; a realization that potentially rogue states -- Arizona, Florida and Michigan -- had called their bluff. FHQ sees it as a realization also, but more a realization of an extended negotiation to nudge these states in the RNC's preferred direction. Yes, the members of the Rules Committee recognize that they are very unlikely to get the handful of rogue states to back off; allowing the calendar to procede as planned in the rules laid out a year ago.1 That said, the national party seems to have come to the conclusion that while that plan is likely dead, maintaining some semblance of order in the calendar is not.

The states, then, have won the battle but not the war. Those states may yet win the war, but for the moment the RNC seems willing to fight on. That may appear counterintuitive on its face given the decision to punt on tougher sanctions, but it isn't. If the Rules Committee had voted to throw down the gauntlet on states in violation of the timing rules, states -- or the decision makers in them -- would have had a clear vision of what was ahead of them. Those actors could weigh the consequences and say either "That's too high a price to pay for going early" or "Sanctions -- whatever the sanctions -- be damned".2 In other words, the decision-making calculus is "easier". By deferring the RNC has at the very least somewhat clouded that decision-making calculus by adding in some measure of uncertainty.

No, that may not prove to be an effective deterrent to early primaries or caucuses, but it at least sows the seeds of doubt, and that may be the only weapon the RNC has. Arizona, Florida and Michigan may go too early for the RNC's liking, but the RNC may be able to push them back into late February and early March. And Rule 16.e.3 is just ambiguous enough to do that. The rule that allows the Rules Committee to raise the penalties against any rogue state or states at their discretion can be interpreted in many different ways. FHQ looked at that rule after the "Arizona situation" arose and thought along the lines of the DNC's decision to strip Florida and Michigan of all their delegates in 2007. The RNC Rules Committee discussed an alternate sanction; stripping rogue states of their premium convention seating and hotel assignments and VIP passes. Any and all combinations of those two possibilities and others are all on the table and are, I'm sure, being discussed by members of the RNC and representatives from the handful of rogue states yet to finalize the scheduling of their contests.

Will the states cooperate? Much will depend on what Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, decides between now and September 2. What we now know, however, is that the RNC is, by putting off a final decision on tougher penalties, attempting to exert the last bit of leverage it has in this battle over primary dates.

1 It should be noted that nowhere in the Republican Party rules for 2012 delegate selection are specific dates for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina codified. The basic framework constructed allows those states to hold contests in February before the March 6 start date for other states. That said, the ordering of the states has, more or less, been understood and the dates specified in the Democratic Party's delegate selection rules have been roughly observed: Iowa on February 6, New Hampshire on February 14, Nevada on February 18 and South Carolina on February 28. And by roughly, I mean that Iowa and Nevada have tentatively scheduled their caucuses for those dates while New Hampshire secretary of state, William Gardner, and the South Carolina Republican Party have been mum on the matter other than to say, "We'll be before everyone else."

2 The latter is predicated on the notion that the eventually nominee will seat a state's full delegation no matter what in the interest of a unified and harmonious party heading into a general election campaign.

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