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Primary Predicament | The Nation

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Primary Predicament

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With little public notice and no serious debate inside the party, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and his allies have hatched a plan to radically alter the schedule and character of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominating process. If the changes McAuliffe proposes are implemented--as is expected at a January 17-19 meeting of the full DNC--the role of grassroots Democrats in the nomination of their party's challenger to George W. Bush will be dramatically reduced, as will the likelihood that the Democratic nominee will run the sort of populist, people-power campaign that might actually pose a threat to Bush's re-election.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The change, for which McAuliffe gained approval in November from the DNC rules subcommittee, would create a Democratic primary and caucus calendar that permits all states to begin selecting delegates on February 3, 2004. That new start-up date would come two weeks after the Iowa caucuses and just one week after the traditional "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary. Thus, the window between New Hampshire and the next primary--five weeks in 2000--would be closed. Already, says McAuliffe, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona Democrats have indicated they will grab early February dates, and there is talk that California--the big enchilada in Democratic delegate selection--will move its primary forward to take advantage of the opening. McAuliffe's changes will collapse the nominating process into a fast-and-furious frenzy of television advertising, tarmac-tapping photo ops and power-broker positioning that will leave little room for the on-the-ground organizing and campaigning that might allow dark horse candidates or dissenting ideas to gain any kind of traction--let alone a real role at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"What McAuliffe is doing represents a continuation of the shift of influence inside the Democratic Party from volunteer-driven, precinct-based grassroots politics to a cadre of consultants, hacks and Washington insiders," says Mike Dolan, the veteran organizer who ran voter-registration campaigns for the California Democratic Party before serving as national field director for MTV's "Rock the Vote" initiative. "This whole process of reshaping the party to exclude people at home from the equation has been going on for years, but this really is the most serious change we've seen. And it's an incredibly disturbing shift. It will increase the power of the consultants and the fundraisers. But it will also make it a lot harder to build the enthusiasm and volunteer base a candidate needs to win in November."

McAuliffe, who is riding high after playing an important role in securing Democratic wins in November 2001 races for the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, says reforms are needed to avoid long, intraparty struggles and allow a clear focus on the task of challenging Bush. With a wide field of Democratic senators, governors, representatives and a former Vice President positioning to run in 2004, he says, "We can't be going through the spring with our guys killing each other."

McAuliffe makes no secret of his desire to have Democrats mirror the Republicans' compressed nominating schedule-- which helped front-runner Bush dispatch the more appealing John McCain in 2000. He wants his party's 2004 nominee identified by early March. Then, the nominee-in-waiting can get down to the business of fundraising and organizing a fall campaign without having to march in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade, visit Wisconsin's dairy farms or jostle for a position on the stage of Ohio's union halls.

One problem with McAuliffe's theory is that history suggests that Democrats who beat sitting Republican Presidents usually do so following extended nomination fights. In 1976, for instance, almost three months passed between the Iowa caucus and the point at which a majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention had been selected. That convention nominated Jimmy Carter, who went on to beat President Gerald Ford. The next Democrat to beat a Republican President, Bill Clinton, won his party's 1992 nod after a bruising primary season that saw him fighting Jerry Brown for New York votes two months after the delegate-selection process began.

A serious state-by-state fight for the party nod can force the eventual nominee to build grassroots networks in key states that withstand the media assaults of the fall; just think how things would have gone if Al Gore had developed better on-the-ground operations in states with solid labor bases, like Missouri, West Virginia and Ohio--any one of which could have provided the Electoral College votes needed to render Florida's recount inconsequential. Instead of recognizing the advantage Democrats gain when they tend the grassroots, however, former candidate Brown says McAuliffe appears to be steering the party toward a model that mirrors Republican approaches. "The process is evolving and it's changing so that it will be even harder to tell Democrats from Republicans," Brown says. "This means the Democrats will be defined more than ever by money and the centralized, Washington-based establishment that trades in money. The trajectory the party is on is not toward greater democracy, not toward more involvement at the grassroots. Rather, the trajectory will make it harder for the local to influence the national. A historic democratic influence on the process is being wiped out, and with it will go a lot of energy Democratic nominees have been able to rely on in the past."

Brown touches on another problem with McAuliffe's approach. In a party already badly warped by the influence of special-interest money and fundraising demands, the new schedule will greatly expand the influence of big money--and of Washington insiders like veteran fundraiser McAuliffe, who can move that money into accounts of "acceptable," if not particularly progressive, candidates. "Everyone agrees the financial demands on candidates will be even higher than in the past, given the breakneck pace at which the contests will unfold," explains Washington Post columnist David Broder.

That bodes well for the best-known candidates with the strongest fundraising networks, like former Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, and also for well-heeled senators like Massachusetts' John Kerry and North Carolina's John Edwards. But low-budget, issue-driven campaigns, like those imagined by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio or outgoing Vermont Governor Howard Dean, will be even more difficult to mount. That, says former Democratic National Committee chairman Fred Harris, is bad news for the party and for progressive politics in America. "If you tighten up all the primaries at the start, it will limit the serious choices for Democrats to those candidates who are well-known or well-financed, or both. That takes away the range of choices, it makes the process less exciting and, ultimately, less connected to the grassroots," says Harris, a former senator and 1976 candidate for the presidency. "This really is a move in the wrong direction. The Democratic Party, to win, needs to be more democratic--not less."

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