Primary colors

PRIMARY COLORS….The good news is the Democrats are making progress on a plan that would revamp the party’s presidential nominating calendar. The bad news is it may not address the problems that prompted the review in the first place and it may lead to a fight that the DNC is unprepared to deal with.

For much of the past year, a Democratic Party commission labored to build a better mousetrap. The goal is to create a 2008 presidential nominating calendar that reduces the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire and stretches the process into the spring to give a better chance to potentially strong candidates even if they do not win early contests.

Now that the commission has made its proposal and the Democratic National Committee is deciding what to do, the reviews from outsiders are a mixed bag.

Here’s the basic plan: Iowa’s caucuses would still be first, followed immediately by a state or two with caucuses of their own. Within a week or so, New Hampshire voters would then participate in the nominating process’ first primary, which would come shortly before another primary or two in other states.

If the goal is to get some ethnic and geographic diversity early on in the process, the proposal is a step in the right direction. But if the purpose of changing the calendar is to avoid “front-loading,” it’s hard to see how five or six contests in the first two weeks of voting will help. Granted, it would be slightly fewer than in 2004 (nine contests in the first 15 days), but not by much.

Perhaps the more interesting question is what New Hampshire will do in response to the proposed change. As Sam Rosenfeld explained, the state is exploring its options — some of which make the DNC very uncomfortable.

Few…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.

If New Hampshire decided to move up its primary to preempt the post-Iowa caucuses, the DNC would then have to decide whether to punish the state by refusing to seat its delegates. For that matter, other states would consider counteracting New Hampshire’s move. It could get ugly.

And what about Republicans? Well, they’re not going to change a thing. As Rosenfeld explained, Dems might want to consider the benefits of the GOP’s approach.

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 [the Brookings Institution’s Thomas 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.

A point for the DNC to consider before it reaches its final decision.