Keep party reform going

Senator Kennedy's conciliatory withdrawal from nomination does not end the controversy over the Democratic rule binding delegates to their candidates. Beyond the early drama and quick convention of the 1980 Democratic nominating convention stands a question which warrants earnest consideration by both party and public: Does the present political process for selecting and nominating the presidential candidate bring forward the most experienced, best qualified individual for the nation's highest office?

Jimmy Carter's clear-out victory on the delegate-binding rule issue has a certain legal and moral justification. It is hard to fault delagates for wanting to remain faithful to the candidate they promised primary voters they would support. Yet whether the rule is a wise one and should remain on the books is open to question. How effectively democratic is a convention if delegates have no room for discretion and independent judgment, espcially if political circumstances change? Under the "reformed" system the convention becomes in effect the vehicle of the winning candidate instead of the deliberative body of a broadly based national party.

As a result of the new reliance on primaries, for fewer professional politicians are represented at the convention. The disappearance of the proverbial "smoke-filled room" and "brokered" convention is regarded as a positive trend -- and this is not to argue for their return. But we can appreciate, too, that professional officeholders -- governors, congressmen, state and local party officials -- have an expertise in government and a knowledge about the potential of prospective candidates that should not be ignored in the selection process. The percentage of such "professionals" has dropped dramatically since 1960 -- to about 10 percent of the delegate seats. Increasing this proportion could provide a mix of primary and convention decisionmaking more representative of the party as a whole.

Few would deny that giving average voters a weighty voice in the nominating process is a step forward. But whether the primary system, as now constituted, produces the strongest candidate deserves examination. Deficiencies of the process have become obvious.

Primaries are an inordinately long process. Candidates have to begin their campaigns a year and more before an election and devote enormous effort and resources. This discourages able senators, governors, and other officeholders who have a sense of conscience about their responsibilities from even entering the fray. If they do join the contest, normal functioning of government is slowed, and their constituents are short changed.

It is true that a primary run tests a candidate's mettle in terms of organizing and financing a campaign and capturing public support. But it does not demostrate whether a candidate fully understands the process of governing in Washington or has the leadership qualities needed to measure up to the demand.

The issues, moreover, tend to be obscured in the primary battles as media -- and voters -- focus most on the candidate's image and style. It is not until later, during the election campaign, that voters become more familiar with the candidate's views and sometimes fall away.

Some political scholars now point to the potential weakness of a campaign victory which rests largely on personal achievement rather than party strength. When a persident's political base is largely personal, writes political scientist Malcolm Jewell, he does not feel responsible to broader elements in the pary and, if his electoral margin was narrow, tends to be unable to draw political strength from his party and even regards strong party leaders as his rivals rather than supporters.

All of which is to suggest the wisdom of continuing to look for improvement of the primary and convention system. Both have been democratized, and that strengthens the political process. But, as is often the case with reforms, the pendulum may have swung too far and now needs to be brought back to a more balanced middle ground. Certainly the primary calendar ought to be shortened. Regional calendar ought to be shortened. Regional primaries and Representatives Morris Udall's proposal that primaries be held only on the first Tuesday of March, April, May, and June are among the ideas worth consideration.

Further review of the nominating process is in order when the emotions of the election year have cooled enough for calm rationality. Democratic National Committee chairman John White does not rule out formation of another review commission. Given the frustration many Americans feel over this year's election -- and the great need for effective presidential leadership -- the Democratic Party will do the nation an injustice of it does not vigorously pursue further reform.

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