Calendar Whirl

They may be a bit rusty at winning presidential elections, but Democrats haven't lost an ounce of their storied devotion to mucking with party procedures. On December 10, assorted party bigwigs assembled in a cavernous ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill for the fifth and final meeting of the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling.

Co-chaired by North Carolina Congressman David Price and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, it marked the latest in a seemingly endless line of blue-ribbon Democratic reform commissions tasked over the last 35 years with forging a more democratic and desirable primary process: McGovern-Fraser, Winograd, Hart, the “Fairness Commission” -- the list goes on. For two middle-aged audience members chatting behind me, it was déjà vu all over again. “I feel like Peter Pan at something like this -- like I never grew up,” said one. His friend corrected him: “It's more like Groundhog Day.”

Such commission fatigue notwithstanding, this 40-member panel actually managed to break a bit of new ground, issuing a set of recommendations to the DNC that take aim at the privileged -- and anachronistic -- perch of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. With only the two Granite State members voting “no,” the commission approved two New Hampshire -- diluting measures: The first inserts one or two caucuses between Iowa's kickoff caucus and the New Hampshire primary; the second adds one to two primaries to be held quickly after New Hampshire, sooner than other primaries can be held under current bylaws. New Hampshire's primary thus would remain nominally “first in the nation,” but its totemic influence would be weakened considerably.

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The vote capped off a year of sometimes rancorous battling over the primary calendar -- though with the ultimate decisions now in the hands of the DNC, the fight is far from over. What all this sound and fury actually signifies, however, remains an open question.

Though straightforward resentment at unearned advantage explains a good deal of Democratic critics' long-standing animosity toward Iowa and New Hampshire, “diversity” and “inclusiveness” were the preferred vocabulary of the Price-Herman commission members. The demographically unrepresentative nature of the lily-white Hawkeye and Granite states is undeniable: Iowa's population is 2.2 percent African American and 3.7 percent Hispanic; New Hampshire is 0.8 percent African American and 2.1 percent Hispanic (it's light on union members, too).

This most recent effort to rewrite the party's calendar stemmed from the tenacious lobbying of Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who began pushing his state party six years ago to unilaterally schedule its caucus on the same day as New Hampshire's primary, in contravention of the DNC's rules -- thus risking the national party's refusal to seat Michigan's delegates at the Democratic national convention. In 2003, Levin was joined by Debbie Dingell, a longtime party activist and wife of John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress. Then -- DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe got them to back down only by promising to appoint a commission to address the question of Iowa and New Hampshire after 2004. The Price-Herman commission, which included both Dingell and Levin, boasted a reform majority embodying a cross section of Democratic constituencies that were scarce in those two states, as well as a coalition of advocates for the addition of western states to the early part of the schedule.

Few, however, question the ferocity with which New Hampshire guards its prerogatives in this process. Granite State pride -- and Granite State coffers, which swelled by $264 million because of primary-related economic activity in 2000, according to one study -- are on the line. New Hampshire law stipulates that the state must hold its primary seven days prior to any “similar election” in another state. The commission, interpreting “similar election” to mean “primary,” recommended inserting one or more caucuses between Iowa's and New Hampshire's so as not to contravene the statute. New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has offered no indications that he agrees with that interpretation. “The law doesn't define ‘similar election' and gives us total freedom,” he told The (Manchester) Union Leader in late November.

This amounted to a threat to unilaterally move New Hampshire's primary ahead of any new contests -- and to dare the DNC not to seat the state's delegates as punishment. Gardner was joined in the push-back effort by state party Chair Kathy Sullivan and former Chair Joe Keefe, who floated a “compromise” proposal that would uncompromisingly keep Iowa and New Hampshire in front. Keefe also dashed off a letter to Price and Herman in November condemning their efforts to undermine New Hampshire's status and threatening to “prevent such an outcome by whatever means necessary.”

Coming as it did before the commission had made any final decisions, New Hampshire's power play infuriated other members and provoked a flurry of anonymous carping in the press. Sullivan, however, is unapologetic. “I had not envisioned that the commission would be derailed from a discussion of all of the important aspects of the nominating calendar,” she says. “The commission was sidetracked into just addressing an issue that's of concern to Carl Levin.”

But the preponderance of voices in the party advocating change made a successful rearguard action by New Hampshire highly unlikely at that stage of the game. When the report was approved, commission members praised it as an incremental step toward greater geographical and constituent diversity. Levin seemed appeased, though only barely so. “The recommendation falls short,” he said, “but it's at least a crack in the wall of privilege that two states have erected around themselves.”

The fight is not over, though. The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee will now consider the commission's recommendations. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has remained resolutely mum on the changes, though it is said to be likely that he will sign off on the committee's recommendation. Price says he is urging the committee to move on the recommendations quickly, before lobbying (and fighting) among various states turns too frenetic. Though Sullivan assured the Prospect that New Hampshire will continue to plead its case through the next stage of the process, momentum and prevailing party opinion are not in its favor.

Meanwhile, commission member and Colorado-based political strategist Mike Stratton says he's certain that the committee will agree to the recommendation to insert at least one new, pre -- New Hampshire caucus state, and that state will likely be a western one. Nevada is his pick for likeliest. “We've talked about making sure we include battleground states, diverse states, and states with good union populations,” he says. “Nevada qualifies all the way around.”

What, in the end, will this all amount to? Perhaps not much. On questions of basic fairness, diluting the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in the process is an all but unarguable goal. Granting a greater role to western states demonstrating strong Democratic growth potential in recent years also makes sense, even if claims about the potential party-building effects of such primary calendar reforms are overstated. But as the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann cautioned in his testimony to the commission last spring, procedural reforms tend to have less of an effect than Democrats expect, and the history of such process reforms does not bear much evidence of producing different (let alone more optimal) outcomes from one reform regime to the next.

A look at the Republican Party's approach to the issue of primary-calendar structure and reform might be instructive. “For the most part they've been less seized by the rules and the process,” says Mann. “They devote less time and attention to these matters than Democrats.” Obviously the top-down organizational instinct of Republicans fundamentally ill-suit earnest, process-oriented Democrats, for whom “small-d” democracy remains an end in itself and freedom is an endless meeting -- or commission. But it will behoove Democrats desperate to end their electoral dry spell to keep in mind that process is not destiny.

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect staff writer.