Democrats Contemplate a Return to the 'Bosses'

LOOKING for an immense irony? Well, here's one. At a moment when democracy is marching forward on the world scene, influential forces within the Democratic Party are ready to make that organization less democratic in order to the regain the presidency.No Democrat is coming right out and saying he is ready to go back to "boss control" of the nominating process. No one is claiming that the days of the Jake Aveys, the Richard Daleys, the David Lawrences, and the Carmine DeSapios were better for the party or the nation. But a growing number of leading Democrats, like former national party chairman John White, are saying that the reform they helped put in place after the ugly display of boss power at the 1968 national convention in Chicago went too far. With only one presidential victory since that reform was instituted, these Democrats argue that the political pros are better able to select a candidate who can win than are delegates chosen in the primaries. Mr. White and those who share his thinking don't want to go all the way back to the bad old days. They simply would like to have about half of the nominating convention made up of Democrats who hold public office and those whom they pick as delegates. The party pros are represented now at the convention, but these "automatic delegates" make up only about one-third of the assembly, not enough to give them a decisive voice in the selection process. What has the infusion of democracy a generation ago done for the Democratic Party? It brought a breath of fresh air to the party. Since 1972, the national conventions have taken on a new look. Gone are the party hacks. Instead, a lot of people new to politics, full of hope and ideals, are involved. Women are well represented. So are the young. And so are blacks and ethnic groups. Indeed, one could well argue that this has been a mighty victory for democracy. But this new "purity" obviously hasn't helped the party achieve its goal of choosing a presidential slate that can win the White House. Except for Jimmy Carter, the president for whom John White was party chairman. Mr. White sees Mr. Carter as a variant, someone whose compelling personality and anti-Washington message won the nomination despite the process, not because of it. White describes the usual process this way: The Democratic candidate who wins in the early tests - the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries - is quite liberal. At the least, this candidate has to cater to liberal groups in those states to win there. Then, with momentum from the early primaries, this Democratic winner goes on to capture enough of these races, and the delegates that go with them, to have the nomination wrapped up by convention time. Thus the party picks a George McGovern, a Walter Mondale, a Michael Dukakis - all supported by the liberals within the party but not acceptable to voters at large. That's the argument of White and his friends. They go on to assert that with more old pros and their wisdom present at the conventions it would be possible for Democrats to again pick winners. When will this counter-reform take place? Not in time for the 1992 election, to be sure. White thinks that after the Democrats are "smashed" by President Bush - which he hopes won't happen but thinks may - the party's leaders will say enough is enough. They will convene and reshape the nominating process along more realistic lines. He says he will be gladly be part of that reassessment and change. Looking to '92, White speculates about the possibility that a number of state Democratic parties may elect favorite-son candidates and prevent any of the national candidates from piling up the delegate totals they need to gain the nomination. This, says White, would keep the present primary process from prevailing and open up an opportunity for the party to select the strongest opponent to Mr. Bush, as perceived by a majority of delegates at the time of the convention. But White has doubts the Democrats will take the steps necessary to open their '92 convention or any subsequent nominating convention. He and many other Democrats who think like him are convinced that to recapture the White House the "old pros" must once again become highly influential in choosing the candidate. And, they say, if that's a move away from "purity" and toward the old days - so be it.

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