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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Getting the Democrats Back in Commission

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page A21

When the going gets tough, Democrats form commissions.

It's an old habit: If an election is lost, there must be some fix in the party's rules and procedures that will turn things around.

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And so it is that since Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in 1968, Democrats have become specialists at tinkering with the process. Some of the changes were quite radical. The post-1968 rules changes, championed by then-Sen. George McGovern, swept away the dominion of the party bosses and handed power over to voters in the primaries and caucuses.

McGovern just happened to win the first presidential nomination under the new rules. When he got clobbered in 1972, Democrats decided the new rules needed to be supplanted by yet newer rules, and then newer rules still. A cadre of party activists became specialists in an arcane art that produced abstruse terms such as "the equal division rule."

For the last quarter-century or so, when Democrats thought about rules changes they often thought about David Price, a remarkable figure in American politics: a scholar-politician who never gives off even a whiff of elitism.

Price now represents North Carolina's 4th Congressional District despite the handicaps of having earned a Ph.D. in political science from Yale (along with a divinity degree) and having been a professor at Duke for many years. In case you hadn't noticed, tying a political opponent to academia can be worse than tying him to organized crime. When incumbent New York Sen. James Buckley dismissed his 1976 Democratic challenger as "Professor Moynihan," the redoubtable Daniel Patrick Moynihan replied, "Ah, the mudslinging has begun." Moynihan, like Price, overcame the burden.

The last time the Democrats revisited their rules in a big way, through a 1981 commission headed by former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, Price was the staff director. He thought it was his last rendezvous with the obscure. "I never thought I'd look at a rule book again," Price said. "The Hunt commission was a full dose."

But now Price finds himself co-chairing yet another reform body, along with former labor secretary Alexis Herman. Price laughs at the name of his study group, certain to cause the rapid onset of sleep for all but the most committed C-SPAN viewer. "It's called the Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling," Price says. "There's not a comma in there."

Unlike some of the earlier models, this commission was not inspired by the results of the previous election. The call for the commission came before last year's outcome was known, inspired by Democrats -- notably Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan -- frustrated that large states such as his own played such a small role in picking the nominee. Its creation was one of the last acts of outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

The awkwardness here is that many Democrats dissatisfied with the primary and caucus process were worried that an unknown outsider like, uh, well, Howard Dean might leverage early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire into unstoppable front-runner status. Before the party could catch its breath and properly vet the potential nominee, his victory would be assured. The Price-Herman commission will now report to the very same Howard Dean, McAuliffe's successor.

Price, a natural conciliator, doesn't think Dean will be bothered by any of this history. And one of the good things about able political scientists is their sense of realism as to the limits of tinkering. "There are many, many examples of people putting too much stock in procedural reforms," says Price, who has made this point in his own participant-observer studies of Congress.

And that's where this commission's work could actually get interesting: if it goes beyond the procedural and gets into things that matter more. Herman says that what began as a "big state/small state" discussion is morphing into "a larger conversation about the party's values." She notes that the way the primary calendar is structured also affects which voices within the party are the loudest, which issues are given the most prominence. Where, she asks, is the voice of the manufacturing worker? How can the seemingly intractable divisions between "red" and "blue" states be eased?

So here's hoping that when Price and Herman sit down with Dean, they talk about the rules, because they have to, but also about what really ails Democrats. A Commission on Values, Ideas and Policies would have two advantages: a simpler name and a suitable task. That may not be the job Price and Herman signed up for, but somebody has to do it.


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