Before anyone gets excited about Democratic presidential prospects next year, a perusal of modern day political history should amply remind one of the fallacy of overconfidence about a party that is utterly without a compass most of the time, even when Republicans are carrying the burden of a war and an unpopular lame duck president.
Once again it seems appropriate to quote humorist Will Rogers’ still valid assessment: “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
That fact was demonstrated clearly when the Democratic National Committee took the Florida chapter of the party to the woodshed for violating the DNC’s edict that no voting in the presidential nomination sweepstakes with the exception of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary shall take place before next Feb. 5. The DNC would deny the fourth largest state its delegates to the national convention next summer unless it reverses its recent decision to hold its primary Jan. 29, a process that might take some doing because the state’s legislature, which sets the dates, is controlled by Republicans. The committee has given them 30 days to get the job done.
The drastic step that could alienate one of the nation’s more important voting blocks is a desperate move to bring some national party control and discipline back into a primary system whose wheels are about to come off as anger among large state affiliates grows over the continuing outsized influence of two relatively minor players, Iowa and New Hampshire. The larger states are moving rapidly and somewhat chaotically to exert their own force in the selection process by drastically revising their primary dates.
One need only go back to 1968 and 1972 to understand what can happen to a party that tries to please everyone and succeeds in pleasing no one. The Democratic national convention in ’68 was so rancorous over the Vietnam War that, as one sage pundit reported, the nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, could have done better in bankruptcy court. Four years later Sen. George McGovern’s Democratic nomination was even more worthless as the party disintegrated into squabbling one-issue factions in a convention that turned off more voters than Kansas Republican Alf Landon’s pathetic effort to unseat Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
Only the Watergate scandal breathed new life in the Democrat’s presidential hopes in 1976 and that just narrowly. By 1980, the party had returned to its old ways with Sen. Edward Kennedy openly seeking the nomination and the machinery in such disarray that Jimmy Carter’s presidency was over after one term. Twelve years later Bill Clinton pulled the party back together only to see it stumble in 2000 when his vice president, Albert Gore, pretty much cut him out of the campaign, shunned his advice and lost the electoral vote. While Florida became the battleground for this historic debacle, Gore only needed to have won his home state, Tennessee, to win.
Now the stage seems set for more proof of Rogers’ assertion with an array of candidates hacking away at each other in more than a dozen debates and the DNC’s probably unenforceable efforts to bring about order in a party that has seldom had it. By the time the convention takes place, the nominee will have been chosen and it will be that person who will exert huge influence over what delegates will be seated at the Denver convention. It is hard to imagine that the Florida delegation will not be included.
In contrast, a handful of Republican hopefuls stuck with an unpopular war and a divisive president have at least held off committing fratricide in their debates, preferring to attack the Democrats. Wasn’t it Ronald Reagan who initiated the 11th commandment: Thou shall not speak ill of fellow Republicans? Most of the time that philosophy works, denying the other party a blueprint for defeating the eventual nominee.
As far as the selection process is concerned, it obviously is in need of serious rehabilitation. The Iowa caucus — important only since Carter’s first nomination — and the New Hampshire primary have been elevated too high for far too long, leaving states like Florida, California, Michigan and New York out of the process. Both parties need to find some way of including those states with the largest number of voters or revise the system into a regional affair. It would also cut down on the field, eliminating some of the less serious candidates. That would be a welcome relief.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)