It has been 12 years and four commissions since the Democratic Party set about the business of reforming the presidential selection process. Last week, North Carolina Gov. James Hunt convened a new commission on presidential nominations and began the reform of the reforms.
The commission's mandate is to produce recommended procedures for selecting delegates to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. The concept is really rather radical for Democratic politics. The new rules may be designed to assist and not hinder the possibility of actually winning an election. It is an objective that Democratic study groups have often failed to achieve. The difference this year may be consensus.
The achievements of the reform process must not be discounted. Having party leaders share the power of candidate selection with the people has been a historic achievement. Guarantees of adequate notice, affirmative action, open meetings and fee elimination have given a new meaning to the lofty ideals of citizen participation.
Other results of reform have not always been so clear. The Democratic Party is governed by the law of unintended consequences. No one ever decided that presidential campaigns should be expanded to a full year. Party professionals were not denied the exclusive right to select candidates so that the media could assume the role. Citizen participation was not encouraged so that elected officials might be excluded. These results are also a part of the process of reform.
Several specific changes have been proposed. Each assists the process of organization-building while preserving the principles of reform.
First, elected officials must be included. A presidential candidate must lead congressmen, governors and mayors in a campaign and in governing. Neither can be achieved if they are not represented in the party convention.
When the 1968 Democratic National Convention met in Chicago, it was as if Congress had adjourned to Illinois. The Congress was in caucus. Last year only eight senators and 35 congress men joined the 3,331 delegates in Madison Square Garden. Granting automatic uncommitted delegate status to certain elected officials will reverse this exclusion of leadership.
Second, the trend toward a longer and more diffuse system must end. Incumbents cannot afford to cease governing while proceeding through a maze of primaries over a year. If four primaries in 1960 were too few, 35 in 1980 were too many. The ability to win scattered primaries is not commensurate with the talents required in a president. Local tests are not appropriate for identifying national skill.
The process must promote individuals of national reputation and broad appeal. By limiting the length of the process and having a variety of states in various regions express their preferences on the same day, we can avoid the distortions of the current process. Press attention and public awareness can be shifted to significant contests.
Third, the process must reach some conclusion. Requirements for proportional representation of delegates on the district level prolong divisive campaigns and inhibit consensus building. By permitting candidates to receive delegates for their failing efforts, the possibilities of deadlock are enhanced and the chances of a prolonged contest are ensured.
In the New Hampshire primary, President Carter defeated Sen. Edward Kennedy by a 10 percent vote margin, but received only a one delegate advantage. In California, Kennedy won with a 7 percent vote margin, but received only a 28 delegate advantage from a total of 306. Party rules should promote ending conflict and building consensus. The 1980 rules did neither. Delegates must, therefore, be elected directly on the district level without the restraints of proportional guarantees.
Fourth, the convention itself must be meaningful again. Its size must be made manageable and its purpose clear. When Franklin Roosevelt accepted the nomination in 1932, he faced 1,154 delegates. In 1960, John Kennedy's nomination represented the judgment of 1,521 delegates. With 3,331 delegates in 1980 and the prospect of adding elected officials in 1984, the convention is incapable of its traditional role. No facility in the nation can even provide adequate accommodations. Formulas for allocating state delegates must, therefore, be reduced.
The role of the convention is also in doubt. Its traditional deliberative nature has been compromised through efforts to ensure that primary voters' preferences are accurately represented. The convention's deliberative role, however, is vital to the party's internal strength. Delegates must be trusted to act faithfully while respected for their judgments. An exchange of ideas between independent people still produces the best results and the soundest judgments.
Events have offered the Democratic Party a historic opportunity to correct the presidential delegate selection process. The recent Supreme Court ruling in D.N.C. v. Wisconsin offers the party broad authority in its own affairs. Democrats are convinced that the futility of their endless conflict last year contributed to their defeat. Party leaders have witnessed the collapse of party discipline and are prepared to reassert authority. It is an opportune moment for the Hunt Commission to look anew at the fruits of reform.
The rules business is serious in the Democratic Party. In recent decades, Democrats have set the national pace for reform. Issues of discrimination and popular participation were addressed first in the party's convention. Government, political competitors and the nation have followed. Now it shall lead again as the party restores the strength and the vitality of its organizational structure within a framework of fairness. There is a new balance to be found.