Kennedy rules fight: Has reform gone too far?

Though the Kennedy rules challenge was defeated in a raw test of political power, the open convention rules issue already has been promised another hearing. But this would come after the passions that drew into a Kennedy-Carter partisan struggle have lapsed.

Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman John White said at a breakfast meeting with reporters Aug. 12 he "will appoint another commission to go over party rules."

The worry of some Democrats is that nomination reforms may have gone too far in stripping party officials of a meaningful convention role -- chiefly that of a fail-safe mechanism at the convention itself, in the choice of a candidate, and as a group of "elders" who can help integrate the presidential campaign with the needs of the party at large.

The outcome was not a complete wash for the senator and his liberal cause.

He had the platform fight on economic policies ahead. "The efforts for Democratic principles must go forward," he said.

He also retained leverage, with his large delegate tally. Mr. Carter wants Mr. Kennedy's support for the 1980 race.

And beyond that he has his Senate career and the prospect of future national reaces as a power, if not a candidate.

If Mr. Carter is re-elected, or if he is replaced by Ronald Reagan, Kennedy's backers expect the senator to continue as an independent critic of the White House -- as liberal opposition leader.

But Kennedy may not have the 1984 field to himself. At the least, Vice-President Walter Mondale must be considered a rival.

The sudden collapse of the kennedy candidacy -- with the rules vote that bound delegates, for the nomination balloting, to primary and caucus vote results -- traced again the historic pattern of such convention challenges.

The floor vote split closely along partisan candidate lines, rather than in response to the merits of the issue itself.

The vote was 1,936 for the Carter "faithful delegate" rule, 1,390 for the Kennedy "open convention" position. This was close to the basic nomination outcome after five months of primaries: 1,981 Carter delegates, 1,226 Kennedy, and 122 uncommitted. Many state delegations voted exactly along candidate lines.

The 1980 situation was much like 1972, when George mcgovern's nomination grip was threatened by a challenge to California's winner-take-all rule. Winner-take-all and "unit" rules already were marked for reform as a matter of principle even by the McGovern forces. They were to be replaced by party reforms requiring proportional division of state delegations according to primary or caucus balloting -- but not until after Mr. McGovern's nomination had been assured.

The binding rule that the Carter forces successfully wrote into party rules this week is criticized by many election experts.

Chiefly, these experts say, it makes the national party convention even more "presidential" and less an affair for the broader federal, state, and local Democratic cast of officeholders.

By historic standards, few Democratic officials are attending this year's convention.

"It's another very dramatic illustration of the almost complete split between the presidential and congressional parties," says the American Enterprise Institution's Austin Ranney, an authority on the US election system.

"The downtrend in party officials' attended at conventions has been going on since the 1969-71 McGovern-Frazer commission rules, which went into effect in 1972," says Mr. Ranney. "Before the reforms, more than half the House and Senate and three-fourths of the governors would have been delegates to their party conventions, and many governors would have led their delegations."

Only 44 members of Congress are delegates to the 1980 convention," observes Rep. Michael Barnes of Maryland, a leader of the open convention forces.

"You hate to see another rules commission, but I'm afraid it's needed." Mr. Barnes says. "One of the important reforms now is to get party officials back into the process. I am here [at the convention] as a member of Congress, but I don't have a vote."

The DNC works closely with the presidential campaign, but offers congressional and state office Democrats little help, compared with what its Republican counterpart does for GOP non-White House office-seekers. Mr. Barnes says his opponent in Maryland already has received $14,000 from the Republican National Committee (RNC).

"I didn't know they were still in business," says Michigan Rep. William Ford, in assessing the DNC's support of office-seekers at congressional and state levels.

"To end 'boss rule," party reformers opened the nomination directly to rank-and-file voters, giving party insiders no break whatever," Mr. Ranney says."Congressmen often don't want to commit themselves to a candidate early and so do not run as delegates."

"The thrust of the Carter rule will be to turn the convention into an electoral college -- confirming primary results," Mr. Ranney says.

However, the Electoral College -- the device for recording state presidential votes -- operates by tradition rather than by specific rules on binding electors. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia have electoral binding rules.

"In the Electoral College, there's only one 'faithless delegate' every election or two," Mr. Ranney says. "Only 10 in history have violated their pledge. . . ."

Electors follow "an iron-clad practice" in following the dictates of state voters rather than attempting to "vote their conscience" -- suggesting special binding rules may be superfluous. At their July convention in Detroit, the Republicans dropped the RNC's enforcement of any state law or state party binding rules.

Mr. Ranney's proposals for reform:

* "I would head the list with delegate voting rights for all governors, representatives, and senators. These party officials, who would also include mayors of cities of 250,000 or 500,000 population, would be uncommitted to specific candidates. The remaining delegates would be chosen in primaries or caucuses."

* "I would liek to see conventions cut to 1,000 or 1,500 delegates." The 3, 331 delegates at this year's New York gathering are too cumbersome a group to serve as a deliberative body, he thinks.

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