Democrats Want to Change the Democratic Party. They Just Disagree on How.
Last May, a group of 21 Democrats gathered in a drab conference room in Washington, D.C. It was the first meeting of the Unity Reform Commission, a hodgepodge of Democratic operatives, activists and politicians nominated by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez. Three more meetings and six months later, the Unity Commission on Friday is set to vote on its official recommendations for reforming the Democratic Party’s presidential primary process and electoral strategy.
“The party cannot remain an institution largely dominated by the wealthy and inside-the-Beltway consultants,” Sanders wrote in POLITICO Magazine last month. “It must open its doors and welcome into its ranks millions of working people and young people who desperately want to be involved in determining the future of our nation.”
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With a potentially historic number of Democrats getting ready to launch a bid for their party’s nomination in 2020, the DNC has barely 18 months to institute any reforms the Unity Commission recommends. We asked strategists, academics and members of Congress to weigh in on whether the party needs to change, and if so, how. Here is what they said about superdelegates, open primaries and renewing a party struggling with internal divisions and minority rule. — Taylor Gee
‘This isn’t a time for incremental changes’
Ron Klain is former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.
The Democratic Party’s nominating process is broken. Its flaws were made plain in 2016, where one candidate won by millions of votes, but due to the opacity, complexity and obscurity of the rules that led to her victory, the result was subject to dispute and derision. This isn’t a time for incremental changes—it’s time for a radical set of reforms based on two core principles: Make the process more democratic and more transparent.
This would require three major changes. First, we should eliminate all caucuses outside of Iowa, and select delegates only through primaries. Caucuses are contrary to the principle of one person/one vote, discourage participation by lower-income voters, and are intimidating to new voters. Second, we should open primaries to independents (but not Republicans) who want to help pick our nominee. If we want independents to back our candidate in the fall, we should welcome their input in picking that candidate in the spring. And third, superdelegates should be stripped of their votes on picking a nominee. Yes, we want these party leaders at our convention and helping to write our platform—but when the roll is called to pick a presidential nominee, only delegates selected through presidential primaries should have a vote.
‘The number of changes the DNC has to make is precisely zero’
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to POLITICO Magazine and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”
The number of changes the Democratic National Committee has to make is precisely zero. All the complaints that have been made in the wake of the 2016 primary are distractions that obscure the more critical debate over the best ideological path forward for the party.
Superdelegates didn’t throw the race to Hillary Clinton; she won the most pledged delegates from the primary process. And that wasn’t because of closed primaries, as Clinton won 15 out of the 24 open primaries.
The DNC has become the punching bag of choice, because many people wrongly assume the committee controls every aspect of the Democratic Party. Last month Senator Sanders, in backing calls for more DNC budget transparency, said, “What is the process by which that money is allocated? We don’t know … you can’t have a few people in a meeting saying, ‘Well, we can’t support the guy in Kansas [or] Montana.’” That’s in reference to complaints that progressive candidates in those states’ special elections didn’t get enough party support. But that was not a DNC decision! The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the respective campaign arms of House and Senate Democrats, allocate money for those candidates.
There are credible arguments for eliminating superdelegates, supporting open primaries (and caucuses) and increasing budget transparency (though if you really want to know where the DNC spends its money, just click here). But the counterarguments are credible, too.
Superdelegates have never overturned the will of the primary electorate, but you might want them around if ever a truly horrific candidate—say, one accused of sexual misconduct—eked through the primaries. Open primaries may give independent voices a bigger role, but primaries restricted to Democrats only—as well as caucuses that attract the most committed activists—help to keep out mischievous interlopers. (The status quo of incorporating all forms of contests, most of which are already open primaries, is a sensible compromise.) Excessive budget transparency can lead paralytic second-guessing in the heat of a campaign.
Instead of demanding irrelevant process changes, those who wish to see the Democratic Party move in a more progressive, populist direction can better achieve their goals with this one simple trick: Win more elections.
‘Do away with superdelegates’
Tim Kaine is a United States senator representing Virginia.
The Democratic Party is stronger when we champion small-d democracy. I would urge the Unity Reform Commission to do away with superdelegates, which are given undue influence in the popular nominating contest and make the process less democratic.
‘The Democratic Party needs to change profoundly’
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Of course the Democratic Party needs to change, and it needs to change profoundly.
First, we must get rid of superdelegates. It’s a way of rigging the primaries and skews outcomes. It makes the party undemocratic, unrepresentative and potentially out of touch, even if those superdelegates are more likely to back a centrist candidate, as they were in 2016, than a candidate further to the left.
Second, independents certainly should be allowed to vote in Democratic primaries. I am less convinced that we need Republicans to come in and potentially create mischief, but I support opening primaries to independents who may seek to become more engaged in the party’s selection of candidates and may very well vote for a Democrat in general elections.
Third, the concerns about budget transparency have taken on greater urgency in light of Donna Brazile’s recent book. We need the DNC’s budget to be completely independent and disengaged from presidential candidates until the nomination is officially decided. Once a Democrat has clinched the nomination, you would necessarily assume his or her budget would be interlinked with the party’s, but there is a clear conflict of interest when candidates make deals with party leadership prior to the conclusion of the primaries.
‘End special superdelegate voting privileges’
Jeff Merkley is a U.S. senator representing Oregon.
The Democratic Party is and should be the party of the people, and it’s important that we take a hard look at our internal processes to make sure our party truly lives up to its name. For example, the last election showed the need to end special superdelegate voting privileges. While our Republican colleagues are engaging in voter suppression, we need to lead the way on voter empowerment and guarantee same-day registration and absentee voting opportunities.
And we need to be as transparent as possible to make sure every Democrat has faith that the results accurately reflect the will of our voters. I appreciate the time and care that the Unity Reform Commission has put into this work and am proud that our party is committed to making every vote count.
‘Get rid of caucuses’
Anita Dunn is a Democratic Party strategist and managing director of SKDKnickerbocker.
I give a lot of credit both to the DNC for setting up the Unity Reform Commission, and to the people who have served on it. Thankless job! The temptation to correct for the perceived problems of the past—as opposed to anticipating the trends of the future—tend to be strong in these exercises.
I hope, though, that the party can get rid of caucuses in the nominating process, which are about as unrepresentative as you can get. I have long advocated for figuring out a way to open up the primary processes in closed primary states. Why would the Democratic Party, with our commitment to participation and tearing down roadblocks to voting, continue to keep big roadblocks to participation in place?
Beyond that, the party should announce a debate schedule at the beginning of the two-year primary process, rather than negotiating it midway through the process.
‘Make absolutely clear what Democrats stand for’
Michael Kazin is the editor of Dissent Magazine and a professor at Georgetown University.
What the democrats need now is three things: First, make absolutely clear what they stand for and why. Whether it’s health care, taxes, job creation, action on climate change, trade agreements or the size of the military—Democrats should decide what positions all, or most, agree on and take them to voters in appealing ways.
Second, become more of a “people’s party.” Yes, do away with caucuses and superdelegates. But also demonstrate that full-time professionals do not run the party, at least not by themselves. Try inviting ordinary people to become members and take part in debates, canvassing, political self-education in their congressional districts and localities—and take their ideas seriously.
Third, nominate a candidate for president in 2020 who understands and can speak to the problems and hopes of white working-class voters, without neglecting the interests of racial minorities. Sen. Sherrod Brown fits the bill, although he has to win reelection in Ohio first.
‘Move the DNC out of Washington D.C.’
John Delaney is a U.S. representative from Maryland and a declared 2020 presidential candidate.
Over time, we should move the DNC out of Washington, D.C., so that it is closer to the people. The focus of the Democratic Party should be the people it serves and the states and districts that we need to win, not its elected officials. It therefore makes sense to make it less a D.C.-centric organization, and the best way to make that point is to move it out of D.C.
‘Limit the unfettered power of the chair’