GOP Seeks Order to Primary Chaos
Is our current system of selecting presidential candidates doomed?
It certainly is under attack. And that's because it has become so messy.
It often starts with a fight over whether Iowa and New Hampshire will go first, and then the rest of the states jostle and elbow each other to move up close behind them.
This year has been downright chaotic. We have two "rogue" states on the Democratic side that have been stripped of all their delegates, and five "semi-rogue" states on the Republican side that have been stripped of half of them. And the Democrats are at an ethical crossroads over whether super-delegates should overturn the choice of pledged delegates.
It has all been very exhausting, which is to say fun. Though I realize not everybody has found it as jolly as I have.
"The most glaring weakness of American democracy is the primary process," according to Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa and currently the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard. (Actually, I think the most glaring weakness of American democracy may be the quality of the politicians it produces. But we can leave that for another day.)
Leach convened a conference at Harvard last week that included members of Congress, members of the Democratic and Republican national committees, state party chairmen, state secretaries of state, campaign consultants, academics and journalists.
In past elections, most of the stuff discussed would have been considered "deep in the weeds," but this year there has been an intense concentration on the process itself. (Issues? We don't need no stinkin' issues.)
There are at least four major plans kicking around in the two parties to reform the nominating process, and Congress is also considering a reform plan, though nobody knows if Congress has the constitutional authority to intervene.
All the plans group states into pods or regions and then rotate the pods or regions so a different one would go first every four years. Some plans would still let Iowa and New Hampshire go first, and some would not.
For any plan to be adopted by both parties and the individual states would require an extraordinary amount of cooperation and goodwill and a commitment to the belief that stability and order is better than turmoil and disarray.
Which is why I think none ever will be adopted.
But the Republican Party is on its way to a valiant try, its Rules Committee having approved a reform plan on April 2 that could be adopted by the Republican convention in September.
The plan is called the Ohio Plan.
A group of 15 small states and five territories would vote next. Then would come regional groupings roughly divided into a Midwest/Eastern region, a Southern region and a Western region. These regional groups would rotate every four years to see which region goes first. The order for 2012, the first year this plan would go into effect, would be determined by lottery.
This plan has the benefit of being fair and orderly — and largely incomprehensible.
It is ironic that the Republican Party is moving ahead with a reform plan, considering that Republicans really don't have very much to be angry about this year.
After all, the Republicans chose a winner early, there has been little or no argument that the system was unfair to the losers, and the Republicans don't have super-delegates to complicate things. Why, therefore, do Republicans want to "reform" things?
It may be that Republicans place a higher value on order and efficiency — Republicans have winner-take-all primaries because that system chooses a nominee more quickly — while Democrats concentrate more on trying to achieve what is viewed as "fair" to the different factions in their party.
The Republican National Committee did not like the jostling by some states to go early in the primary calendar this year and stripped New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming of half their delegates as punishment. The Ohio Plan would prevent future jostling.
David Norcross, chairman of the RNC Standing Committee on Rules, said at the Harvard conference that there was "consensus" within the party for the Ohio Plan, which passed the Rules Committee by a vote of 26 to 12. "If the candidate thinks it's a good idea, we will adopt it at the convention and there will be pressure on the Democrats to go along," he said.
But wait. What if John McCain doesn't think it's a good idea? What if he doesn't want to throw out a system that, after all, resulted in his nomination?
In that case, Norcross said, the plan would be "dead in the water."
So there may be no change at all. I, for one, would not be crushed.
Our process of selecting presidential nominees is brawling, raucous, chaotic, sometimes goofy, sometimes splendid and utterly imperfect.
In other words, it is very American. Works for me.
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