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Tinkering won't save Democrats

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Undeterred by evidence that all its improvements make matters worse, the Democratic Party has decided to further fine-tune the presidential nomination process. It has endorsed a California proposal to move that state's primary up from June to the first Tuesday in March. One must admire the panache with which the party takes leaps in the dark, no matter how often it stubs its toes.

This is the party whose decline in presidential competition has coincided with the rise of its itch to reform the nomination process. It has made the process more "democratic" by diluting the influence of professionals and increasing the sway of ideologically intense factions. The first result of giving power to (some of) "the people," was George McGovern, who then swept Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Now the liberal party is endorsing a step that would make the nomination context less of an equal opportunity process, and one more easily dominated by candidates connected, through their public offices, with big money in the private sector.

When the process starts slowly and in small states, retail politics is possible. Relatively unknown candidates have a fighting chance to jump to prominence before the big expensive primaries arrive. Conceivably, that still could be true in 1992. Perhaps there will be two ways for a candidate to make a quick splash in California _ by spending, say, $7-million there, or by winning New Hampshire.

A primary in a socially, ethnically and economically diverse state where one-ninth of the nation lives will be a semi-national primary. If other big states, such as Texas, feel impelled to move up their primaries, we will have, de facto, a national primary. That will be a mechanism capable of making a quick, decisive, continental mistake.

California, with seven major media markets, is a maw that devours political money. The more the nominating process is "front-end loaded," with huge delegate prizes won early in states that require millions to be spent (and hence millions to be raised long before the process begins), the more the process favors candidates who are national figures already. It especially favors those who have leverage with large givers.

It favors governors, whose states do lots of business with business. Michael Dukakis had a lot of early money; Mario Cuomo could have a lot. So could Sen. Lloyd Bentsen: Business wants a happy chairman of the Finance Committee. Sen. Bill Bradley is a member of that committee, and of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

On the other hand, remember Gary Hart in the giddy three weeks after the 1984 New Hampshire primary. He won that primary with a grand total of 37,702 votes (37.3 percent and a margin of just 9,529 over Walter Mondale). Suddenly and briefly he was a national fad, supported for the presidency by more people than had even heard of him a month earlier. Now, suppose that the week after New Hampshire there had been a primary in California, the state of novelties and regrets.

If there is a clear winner in an early California primary, the contest may be essentially over right then. But that is a big "if" now that the Democratic Party has decided that proportional allocation of delegates is the only ethical system in primaries.

In 1988, Southern Democrats cobbled together Super Tuesday to strengthen the voice of moderate conservatism in the party. That is why we are currently governed by President Gore. Albert Gore did well on Super Tuesday, but so did a Massachusetts liberal (Dukakis) and the most liberal candidate (Jesse Jackson).

Republicans may hope that the liberal money of Beverly Hills will pull Democrats ruinously far left in an early California primary. However, Iowa's Democratic activists, who are disproportionately influential in a caucus system, are much more liberal than California's Democratic electorate.

Democrats hope an early California primary will prevent another McGovern. And another Carter. And another Mondale. And another Dukakis. But the boring truth is that no one knows how an early California primary will work upon either party in any particular year.

The timeless truth is this: Ideas matter more than mechanisms in politics, and no noodling around with the nuts and bolts will save the Democratic Party until it makes up its mind to have a mind.

Washington Post Writers Group