ONCE UPON a time Democratic fairness commissions were the scenes of Titanic struggles. This year's fairness commission, which is headed by South Carolina's Donald Fowler and which met at the Shoreham Friday, has not been the scene of much of a struggle between anybody. It was set up because of complaints about the Democrats' delegate selection process by defeated candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. But Mr. Jackson has taken almost no interest in the commission, and Mr. Hart's representative sat quietly in the audience, making no attempt to influence its decisions. Little was heard from Edward Kennedy's operative or the AFL-CIO's. The fact is that although many Democrats have minor complaints about their presidential selection process, almost no one seems to have major problems with it, and the few who do want a total overhaul know they haven't got the votes.
The tinkering that Mr. Fowler's commission is doing reflects this situation. Wisconsin's open primary, in which any voter can participate because there is no party registration, was outlawed a few commissions ago because that was one thing the reformers and regulars could agree on. But now they are not fighting, and Wisconsin's governor, Tony Earl, and four other Wisconsinites were at the Shoreham and got a special exemption engineered by national chairman Paul Kirk. The 350 or so Democratic National Committee members were not automatically convention delegates in the past, because none of the leading candidates could be sure of them. But with no leading candidates running the show, and DNC members having right of final approval over the rules, the Fowler fairness commission bowed to the inevitable and gave them all seats.
The commission went some way toward meeting Jesse Jackson's complaints by lowering he threshold -- the percentage of the vote any candidate must receive to win delegates in a congressional district -- from 20 to 15 percent. But that is a marginal change, and states may continue to elect delegates directly, which in practice means winner-take-all in each district. Far from meeting Gary Hart's complaint about the automatic seats allotted to elected and party officials, the commission went the other way: it increased the number of seats for congressmen from 60 to 80 percent of House and Senate Democrats. But this increase of 60 or so officials who presumably reflect ordinary voters because they are elected by them is offset by the increase of 200 or so DNC members who are selected often by the caucus types whose influence arguably hurts the party's ability to win general elections.
The net effect is close to a wash, which is what these Democrats want. They have scheduled their next meeting for the convenient locale of Reno Nev., and want to get their commission report out this year. It will reflect the Democrats' widespread urge to be done with the rules and get on with the business they have often neglected of actually trying to win national elections.