Reform for '84 -- no fooling?

No, it's not an April Fools' Day joke. There really are a lot of hard-working Americans out there trying to fix their presidential nominating machinery before it is too late once again. This year something new has been added: an agreement by Republicans and Democrats on recommended changes in party nominating procedures. These are in the direction of reducing the proliferation of primaries and increasing the role of officeholders -- though without officially limiting primaries, telling states what to, or making officeholders simply ex officio delegates. The upshot is toward federalism as espoused by the Republican Party.

Indeed, Republicans see the agreement, resulting from a December conference at Harvard's Institute of Politics, as requiring virtually no change in their procedures. For them it provides a document to present as a reminder to state legislatures when electoral changes are proposed by the Democrats. And a GOP committee is expected to recommend party acceptance of the agreement, though for the Republicans only the quadrennial convention can adopt or alter rules.

As for the Democrats, who can make changes between conventions, the agreement may already have had an effect. It is said to have helped to keep some fringe proposals out of the procedural changes voted for by the Democratic National Committee last week.

Among the proposals the committee did accept were some to roll back what had been considered reforms in the past, such as curbing the role of officeholders and party officials in preference to rank-and-file representation. The committee last week voted to give a large new block of uncommitted delegate seats to party leaders and elected officials, to soften restrictions on pledged delegates, to let states allow ''winner-take-all'' primaries.

Also the committee voted to shorten the primary periods by five weeks through confining all primaries to a three-month period starting in the second week of March. Controlled exceptions to this ''window'' would be the Iowa caucuses, permitted no more than two weeks beforehand, and the New Hampshire primary no more than one week before the official window.

Such a grouping might reduce the possible distortions caused by a New Hampshire primary far earlier than all the rest, with its advantages or disadvantages for various candidates. It is in line with the recommendation of an independent commission on nominations at the University of Virginia, which would limit primaries to no more than 16 and require all delegate selections between the first week in March and the first week of June.

But specifying dates for the primaries would not necessarily alter the de facto beginning of campaigns - namely, when the news media start picking up candidates as being newsworthy. On balance it seems better to let the federalism of the Harvard agreement prevail, allowing each state to determine what it chooses to do. This may be untidy in the democratic way, but it offers its own valuable checks and balances.

Of course, electoral machinery is only part of the challenge. The procedural pendulum may be swinging. But, whatever the changes, the success of the system will fundamentally depend on the quality of the individuals carrying it out, and the substantive issues they choose to fight for.

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