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System Is Broke, Party Must Fix It

The Running Arguments: Last in a Series Surveying the 1988 Presidential Campaign and Candidates.

November 20, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, was Walter F. Mondale's campaign manger in 1984

WASHINGTON — Whither the Democrats? In the less than two weeks since the election this has already become a tired bit of self-indulgence. As the Republicans pick their transition team, the Democrats pick themselves apart. This time the Democrats deserve to have this fight--if it's about the right issues.

There is a rough consensus in the party. The selection process born of the reforms in the early 1970s is fatally flawed. The effort to democratize the way the party chooses its presidential nominee resulted in its candidate losing five of the last six elections. What Democratic reformers failed to understand is that the nominating process is not meant to be democratic. It's supposed to select the strongest candidate to run in the general election.

This is not meant as a shot at Michael S. Dukakis or my old boss, Fritz Mondale. They were wounded by the selection process. The hoops they jumped through to get the nomination left them limping into the general election. Does anyone remember where Dukakis declared himself a card-carrying member of the ACLU? Before a very liberal group in the very liberal Iowa caucuses.

Which brings us to the first recommendation. Get rid of Iowa and New Hampshire. These two states, representative only of themselves, stand at the entrance to the nominating system. They have distorted and distracted the process long enough. One is too liberal, the other too Republican. Both are given enormous unrepresentative power for upsetting front-runners and launching the candidacy of unknowns.

The argument for these states is that they do provide an access point where unknown candidates can become known. The problem with the argument, however, is that it's not clear why the system should favor unknowns. People with national reputations should have an advantage in gaining the nominations, just as they will in the general election.

Iowa and New Hampshire will not willingly give up the disproportionate power they have over nominations. Congress has to do it--using the leverage of federal matching funds for campaigns. A law can establish a schedule for primaries and caucuses. Anyone allowing his or her name on the ballot of a state not following this schedule will not get matching funds.

The schedule could flexibly set up a process of, say, four primary days on the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June of election year. Each state could pick the Tuesday that falls closest to its traditional primary date. As for the states' reluctance to give up their historical dates, we should remember how many willingly switched to participate in the Southern Super Tuesday vote this year.

One other change is needed. The proliferation of primaries has been a disaster for state parties. Under the rubric of taking power away from the "bosses," we have completely taken the state parties out of the selection process.

We need to get bosses back into play. And as we proceed, we ought to remember that these bosses are the same men and women who keep the party together in the years between elections by devoting themselves to the party. They deserve a greater voice in selecting their party's nominee.

Doing this does not require doing away with primaries, which is politically unrealistic. Instead, primaries should only cover 60% of the state's delegates, with state parties picking the other 40%. The delegates selected by the party should reflect the gender and race rules that exist today, but in no way do they need follow the primary or caucus results in the state. Not only does this strengthen the party, it also weakens the special interests who pull and paw at the candidates in the primary process.

These recommendations and ones like them will no doubt widen existing divisions in the party. The Iowa and New Hampshire moves will upset liberals and presidential long shots. The 60%-40% split will infuriate Jesse Jackson. These are not reasons for inaction. In fact, the time to fight is now. The party ought to be taking care of business right away so it can get on with the serious job of winning elections. Our slogan ought to be: Get it Done by '91.

My old friend Bert Lance is fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." More recently he spoke of the nominating process and concluded, "It is broke and it's time to fix it." He's right on both counts.

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