Rules Determine the Winner

In each presidential campaign since 1968, changed rules and procedures have determined who would be the nominee of the Democratic Party. And in each convention and nominating process, the person eventually nominated played a prominent part.

Under pressure because of the inequitable and discriminatory procedures at the 1968 convention, that convention adopted a resolution specifying that at the next convention delegates would have to be chosen more democratically. The 1972 rules, developed by the McGovern Reform Commission proved to be just right to assure the nomination of Senator McGovern. The rules for 1976 were made more democratic. Jimmy Carter was a member of the rulemaking commission. The new rules were just right to assure Carter's nomination. Anticipating that President Carter might have difficulty getting re-nominated under the 1976 rules, the Democratic Party changed the rules for the 1980 campaign and then, again to assure the nomination of Vice President Mondale, changed the rules for the 1984 campaign.

Having done about as much as they could by manipulation of the process through changing party rules, the Democrats, sometimes aided by the Republicans, moved to manipulation of the existing primaries and to proliferation of primaries. The state legislatures and the governors took control, at least of the Democratic Party, operating primarily through the Democratic National Leadership Council. Governors beginning with Carter became the presidential nominees with senators in the supporting roles of vice presidential candidates, and succeeded to presidential candidacy only after they had served as vice presidents. This relationship prevailed in the 1988 election with Governor Dukakis as candidate for president and Senator Bentsen for vice president and in 1992 with Bill Clinton, a governor, for President and Al Gore, a senator, for vice president.

Meanwhile, the jockeying of primary dates went on. Iowa and South Carolina moved on New Hampshire, which as late as 1968 held the earliest primary on the second Tuesday in March. Although this year it was held on February 1, there was mention of its being held earlier as the Secretary of State of New Hampshire said late last year, "We can hold our primary before Christmas, if it comes to that." Other states have made separate changes in their primary and caucus dates. Michigan has moved its primary up a month to February 22, for example. Virginia and Washington have moved into February. California, New York, Florida, and Texas will hold their primaries in early March.

Super Tuesdays are expanding. The situation borders on entropy in its randomness, chaos, and disorder since most, if not all, of the moves are directed not towards more orderly elections and a better informed electorate, but to determining which state has an early, even though uninformed, effect on the presidential choice and/or the economic benefit of campaign expenditures in the particular state.

The most serious consequence is that of moving the dates of decision into February or closer to that month. New Hampshire should have made its stand for the second Tuesday in March when challenged by Iowa following the 1968 election.

February may be a good month for reflection and meditation, but it is not good for decisions. Neither poets, philosophers, nor historians have anything good to say about February, at least in the Western tradition. "February bears the bier," wrote the poet Shelley. A Welsh proverb asserts that a Welshman would rather see his mother dead than see a fair February.

February is not a month distinguished by any significant natural phenomenon. It has no equinox like March or September, no solstice like December or June. It is not named after even a lesser god or after an emperor or for a number. The early Romans dedicated February to the nether world. During February, they worshiped Pluto and the souls of dead ancestors. They looked down and back, rather than forward and up. It was a time of no decisions.

Even the animals shun decision-making in February. It is a month of deep hibernation for hibernating animals. Even for higher mammals, including human beings, in northern zones bodily and mental functions are at their lowest level. Only the groundhog, by reputation, breaks the pattern and then only for a quick look about for its shadow. Its response is not reflective, but automatic. If it sees its shadow, it returns to hibernate for another six weeks, or until mid-March, about the time of the Spring equinox and the Ides of March. In New Hampshire, the sap is rising in the maple trees, the ice is breaking up in the lakes, frost heaves are breaking up the blacktop roads, storm windows are being removed, and people are ready for political decisions.

The most serious consequence of misunderstanding February, until the current rush to move primaries into that month, was manifest in the adoption of the "lame duck" amendment to the Constitution in 1933. Why the amendment was proposed and accepted is difficult to determine or explain. There was no record of any constitutional crisis arising from the March inauguration date. There were no prospects of any crisis looming on the horizon. There was no record of any lame-duck president's having abused his power between the January date of the new rule and the old March 4 date which had been established in 1792. There was no record of frustration of newly elected presidents because of the two-month wait. Presidents elected when the old rule was in effect, Franklin Roosevelt for example, had approximately 220 days between his election and the end of his famous 100 days. Presidents following him have had only 180 days between their elections and their first 100 days in office. The most serious consequence is that the 20th Amendment puts new presidents into office under pressure to make serious decisions in February.

Presidents ending their terms should be kept in office through February while their political ambitions slowly die. They should be encouraged to read seed catalogs during their waiting time and possibly pardon a few prisoners and a few fellow politicians.

Newly elected presidents should not be brought into office remembering that they were nominated by votes case in February, nor should they be put in position or under pressure to make decisions before March 15 at the earliest. There are other changes that should be made in the primary system, but February is the critical one.

Eugene J. McCarthy was a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. He now lives in Woodville, Va., His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).

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