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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Confusion and Delay

As we get ready for another small round of Democratic presidential primaries tomorrow, which are likely to add up to no more than another small accretion of data in the nominating process, it’s not a bad idea to make a large mental note about the need for truly systemic reforms in the system before 2012.
In that connection, RealClearPolitics has published a speech by the excellent Jay Cost which really hits the nail on the head about the basic problem with the current nominating process in both parties:

At its core, the current nomination system is a disjointed hybrid of the old, state party-centered way of choosing nominees and the new way that places power with rank-and-file partisans. The reforms of the 1970s did not amount to root-and-branch changes, but rather 20th century updates to a 19th century system.
Perhaps this accounts for the powerlessness of the national committees. They are tasked with bringing coherence to an incoherent system. I would suggest that whatever changes are made – whether the national parties are strengthened or not – the goal should be to impose coherence of form and purpose. Right now, both processes have one foot in the past and one foot in the present.

That’s exactly right. Whatever you think of the particular strengths and weaknesses of the present method of nominating presidential candidates, no one charged with designing a system de novo would come up with anything like the status quo. At some point, both parties are going to have to decide once and for all whether the nomination of a presidential candidate is a function of the national party or of state parties and state governments. The current system is indeed an incoherent hybrid that is difficult to “reform” in small ways because it represents wildy divergent traditions and impulses.
You’d think that the agonizing if exciting Democratic contest this year would be enough to spur root-and-branch reforms, and maybe it will. But then again, our election administration “system,” another incoherent amalgam of 19th century state-based traditions and 20th century notions of fairness and uniformity, suffers from many of the same problems, as was exposed in the most dramatic fashion possible by the 2000 presidential election. Yet nothing’s really changed since then.
I had to chuckle at one phrase used by Cost in his speech: the Democratic nominating system, he said, is designed to produce “confusion and delay.” As some of you may recognize, this is the horrible judgment meted out on the perenially popular Thomas the Tank Engine children’s TV show for the consequences of mistakes made by its anthropomorphic locomotives. It makes you wonder how many train wrecks we must endure in our electoral system before we finally redesign the tracks.

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