Democrats are trading away party rules

The Democrats have completed another battle in their perennial war over party rules. The Rules Committee to the 1984 Democratic Convention will propose yet another party reform commission and give it a comprehensive agenda, guaranteed to produce both conflict and change by 1988. But the real feature of this combat is what it tells us about American politics.

In effect, the Democrats have created a system in which the political party has been pushed aside in favor of presidential candidates, who have been left to trade away the rules of the game. The basic ground rules for presidential politics have become a bargaining chip, like a platform plank or a committee appointment.

The Republicans rarely suffer this particular conflict. The national party makes an attempt at ensuring due process and prohibiting discrimination. Otherwise, it leaves the choice of a delegate selection plan to individual state parties. The Democrats, on the other hand, are long past this point. The thrust of party reform has been toward the elaboration of procedure and the constriction of the role of the party.

From 1968 through 1980 the thrust of reform was toward openness, participation, and equality. By 1980, however, many analysts came to believe that the baby had gone out with the bath water and that the virtues associated with a party-based system had been discarded. These virtues, historically, included a connection between the candidate and an ongoing party program, as well as between the candidate and an ongoing set of party constituencies. They included an implicit requirement of political experience and a reasonable chance that the nominee would possess the allies necessary to govern should he become president.

In an attempt to engineer these virtues back into the process, the 1984 Hunt commission took two small steps. The first was the creation of a class of superdelegates - state and national public officials added automatically to each state delegation on a formally uncommitted basis. The second was the reaffirmation of the right of individual states to offer direct election of their delegates by district, so that citizens might vote directly for the contenders for delegate status. The provision for superdelegates was introduced in the hope that they would moderate the behavior of the convention, an essential outcome for a party whose recent conventions have gone far toward crippling their own nominees. The option of direct delegate election - often known as winner-take-all by congressional district - was offered to magnify the influence of the big industrial Democratic states, the very states which must be captured by a Democratic nominee in November.

It was these two revisions, above all others, which Gary Hart challenged before the Rules Committee. The superdelegates were indeed weighted against Hart , and the states which used direct election preferred his opponents as well. It was these same revisions that Walter Mondale blithely threw away as the Rules Committee opened, thereby converting the remaining party-based virtues in presidential selection into one more means of conciliating an opponent.

Over the subsequent 18 hours or so, those who had benefited most from these revisions - Democratic public officials and spokesmen for organized labor - managed to restrain these concessions, so that they became ''recommendations'' rather than ''mandates'' for 1988. Yet the willingness of Mondale to dump these proposals remained the ultimate demonstration of the way that the fundamental rules have fallen hostage to calculations of temporary candidates. For if it was Walter Mondale who had pitched away these reforms, it was also Mondale who had fought beside labor and public officials over the previous four years to create them - just as it was Mondale who had benefited so strongly from these same rules on the way to a nomination.

At the final session of the Rules Committee there was a further effort to confirm that these were ''recommendations,'' not ''directives,'' and this interpretation is the one remaining in the legislative history of the committee. But it is just as easy to imagine that Americans, Democrats and perhaps Republicans, will find themselves in 1988 with another set of presidential ground rules, based not upon the voter's best interests nor upon the virtues in any system, but upon the idiosyncratic outcomes of delegate politics in 1984. At that point, we shall again face a set of retailored party rules, one developed explicitly to fight the battles of the last war, rather than the next.

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