Commentary: Primary (Reform Under False) Colors By Thomas Gangale

Friday August 26, 2005

The greatest political issue of 2005 is flying under the publicCs radar: how shall we decide who gets to be on the November 2008 ballot? Ah! To nominate or not to nominate, that is the question! 

In 2004, Iowa and New Hampshire nominated John Kerry, then it was all over but the shouting. The voters in later states didn’t really matter. By the time Howard Dean threw in the towel in mid-February, only a fifth of the American electorate had spoken. 

In 2008, California will have no voice. The state legislature has moved the primary to June. That’ll be about four months after the shouting, unless there is a complete redesign of the nomination process. 

The Democratic National Committee has a commission studying possible reforms. How are they doing? An eye-witness to the DNC commission’s July 16 reported, “At one point a commission member noted they didn’t have a clear idea of what question they were supposed to be answering.” After seven months of work, the commission is still looking for a mission statement. 

Taking a look at the commission’s website, most of the links on it result in a “Page Not Found” error. There is no way for the ordinary citizen to know what the commission has done, is doing, or will do. Also, this commission was supposed to hold meetings around the country and get lots of input, but all of its meetings have been meeting in Washington. The new DNC chairman Howard Dean has promised a more open and activist Democratic Party, but this commission is the blackest of the black holes, the smokiest of the smoke-filled rooms. The analysis and decision-making that go into determining how the 2008 primary schedule will be laid out ought to be conducted in the full light of day, which as much participation as possible by the party rank and file. This is an issue that all Democrats own, yet it  

might just as well be locked away at Guantanamo Bay. 

This year’s Democratic commission may not have the depth of knowledge on this issue that Republicans acquired through dogged experience, so they might well repeat the error that a Republican commission made in 1996 and recommend half-hearted measures, rather than go for a systemic solution as another Republican commission did in 2000 (which George Bush helped to shoot down). If so, then another blitzkrieg campaign looms in 2008, and a small portion of the American electorate will be buried in the rubble of sound-bite rhetoric, while the majority--including all Californians--will be left politically orphaned. 

2008 is the grand opportunity. For the first time since 1928, no incumbent president is running for re-election, and no sitting vice-president is running for the top job. The planets are all lined up, and the Democrats are acting like they’re not ready to launch. 

A systemic solution is possible, but it must be fair to populous states even as it preserves “retail politicking” in the intimate venues of low-population states in the early part of the campaign season. It would be far better for the two parties to take this leap of faith, if not simultaneously, at least with some confidence that one will follow the other. We, the people, deserve this. The report of the bipartisan Miller commission stated: 

“No political process in the United States is more important than our method of nominating presidential candidates, yet none has given rise to so much dissatisfaction. From both ends of the political spectrum come demands for change. A growing resolve on the part of concerned Americans to find a solution to this problem unites Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.... This new movement knows no partisan cast, nor does it seek to benefit any one candidate or faction. It is motivated solely by the belief that the public interest is ill-served by the current nominating system. Its conviction is as simple as it is significant: there must be reform.” 

That was in 1982. My watch says, “Half past 2005.” How about yours? 


Thomas Gangale is the executive director at OPS-Alaska, a think tank based in Petaluma, and an international relations scholar at San Francisco State University. He is the author of the American Plan to reform the presidential nomination process.