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Obama Curbs Superdelegates and Eyes 2012

Today’s Washington Post reports that Sen. Barack Obama will try to change party rules to reduce the power of superdelegates and reform the presidential nominating calendar:

[A new commission would be established] with a goal of reducing the power of superdelegates, whose role became a major point of contention during the long battle for the Democratic nomination between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The commission also will be urged to redraw the nominating calendar for 2012 to avoid starting the primaries and caucuses so early, and also to look specifically at ensuring more uniform rules and standards for those caucuses.

Vesting unchecked power to unelected insiders. Overriding the clear will of the majority. Undermining political activity by making citizens feel like their participation is futile. Those are dark aspects of the Democratic Party’s primary rules. When you think about it, they’re also longstanding problems in American democracy, from the Constitution’s unelected Senate to an Electoral College that took the candidate with fewer votes in 2000 and made him president. Change starts at home, as they say, so it’s logical for Obama to begin democratizing America by democratizing his own Democratic Party. But, but, but — a commission? We need a blue ribbon commission to nix a few hundred superdelegates? Again, from The Post:

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the campaign will ask delegates at the national convention in Denver to approve a resolution approving the establishment of a 35-member Democratic Change Commission. The charter would authorize the [DNC] chairman to appoint the commission soon after the election and ask it to report back by January 2010.

This is fine, it could work. Still, let’s be serious. This is exactly what the Democrats did last cycle, just after the 2004 race. We now turn to a similarly earnest, though dated, announcement from the party:

The 2004 Democratic National Convention passed a resolution calling for the creation of the Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling. The commission is charged with studying the timing of presidential primaries and caucuses and developing recommendations [to improve the timing and fairness of] the 2008 nominating process…

That commission had 39 members, not 35, and it did make some changes — like inserting Nevada and South Carolina into earlier spots on the calendar. But most of the key reforms — like ending the front-loaded primaries, that benefit front-runners and knee-cap candidates who raise less money; or adjusting which states go first, which can completely change who wins the whole show — died a slow death in a deadlocked commission. (I was following it back in 2005.) In other words, to paraphrase Sen. John McCain, *commissions are not change you can believe in. *

If the objective, as Obama’s aides have announced, is to reduce the power of elite superdelegates, Obama should just lay that proposal on the table, sans commission. As a rule tweak, it’s a populist no-brainer backed by just about every Democrat who is not a superdelegate.

Now, if the campaign doesn’t want to offend powerful superdelegates during the convention, for practical reasons, fine. But then the safer course is to push this change after November (assuming there is power to be wielded), and again, without a commission. Finally, reforming the nomination calendar, a boring task that happens to have huge consequences for which candidates get near the White House, could be hard to achieve through a commission full of people invested in the status quo.

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