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Citizen Participation Endangered in Democratic Primary

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As the 2008 campaign begins in earnest, most pundits are talking about e-mail and video announcements, mandatory trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, and campaign Web sites. But are they missing the big picture?

With a year to go, we already have an impressive roster of at least eight well-qualified Democratic candidates. However, the caucus/primary system is evolving rapidly and only a few of them may actually have a chance.

Clearly, the big three today are Edwards, Obama and Clinton. They have the visibility, funds and name recognition to keep them front and center until the votes are counted. All will face challenges, but barring a huge mistake or surprise, they should remain in the top tier. Currently, each demonstrates significant strength in at least one or more poll.

The other five might soon find that they face a stacked deck, with major states considering or moving to push up their primaries to February 5. This frontloading of primaries would be a huge setback for the party's democratic nominating process and present the most significant setback since the 1968 Convention.

In 1968, as a huge citizen's revolt against the war in Vietnam and President Johnson's reelection roused the nation, the bosses called all the shots. In Georgia, segregationist Lester Maddox hand picked his state's delegates. In other states, powerful machines like those of Mayor Daley of Chicago, Mayor Barr of Pittsburgh and Mayor Tate of Philadelphia controlled their states' delegates.

In the Pennsylvania primary, underdog Senator Eugene McCarthy won a landslide victory against President Johnson but only received two delegates from the entire state. The same story could be told from Connecticut to Illinois to North Dakota to Arizona. The process was essentially closed to the citizen campaigns of McCarthy and Senator Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated just as his campaign might have overcome these institutional barriers. The bosses picked the candidates and the delegates, defiantly saying to hell with what the people wanted.

One of the positive results of that horrendous 1968 Democratic Convention was the creation of the McGovern Commission on Party Reform, of which I was a member. The purpose was to rewrite the party rules for delegation selection so the abuses of 1968 would never happen again. In the process, the Commission opened the process to women, African Americans, Hispanics and members of the LGBT community for the first time. The changes we made are the reason that George McGovern was nominated in 1972. Half the delegates at the 1972 convention (and future ones) had to be women, and African-Americans finally had a place at the table - especially from the South. At the 1972 convention, Jim Foster from San Francisco was the first openly gay person to address a convention. The people were finally allowed into their party.

Over the years, the nominating process worked itself out and made the party stronger and stronger. If there were long-shot or insurgent candidates like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, they had the time to prove themselves in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Once they had, they were given at least five months to build upon their new found visibility and share their ideas with the people.

In fact, if the primaries weren't spread out over five to six months in 1992, Bill Clinton probably would not have been the nominee. Remember, it was in February that the Gennifer Flowers scandal arose and almost knocked him out of the race. But he had time to deal with the issue and demonstrate that he could overcome it.

Quite simply, there was time to take one's message and strengths to the people after initial victories or strong finishes in early primaries. If a long shot broke through, they had time to raise funds, take their message to other states and mobilize a citizen's movement within their campaigns.

That is all about to change, however, and we might soon see new party power brokers emerge - big money fundraisers.

The system is about to be dramatically changed and I am surprised that it is happening on Governor Dean's watch. It's possible that the whole nominating process could last exactly two weeks after the first vote is cast in 2008. States like California, New Jersey, Florida and New York are considering or are in the process of moving their primaries up to February 5. That means if someone finishes strong in Iowa or New Hampshire, like Clinton or Carter, they have one week to assemble the resources to run full scale campaigns in expensive mass media markets. Even if they can raise the money, most of the best advertising time slots in those states will have already been purchased by the big three.

So if either Vilsack or Richardson surprises the pundits and wins an early primary, there is no way they can quickly mobilize citizens, raise massive amounts of money or get their message out in just two weeks. Let's face it, if those states move their primaries to February 5, the race will be over that day. Insurgency campaigns built around issues or charismatic personalities will have very little chance of moving forward, even if they win in early states.

So where does this leave the power? Over the last couple of elections we have seen the increasing influence of money. More and more, access has depended on how much you can give, how much you can bundle or how many rich friends you can put around a table. Citizen groups still have had influence, but mostly because of the emergence of the Internet and progressive campaigns like Governor Dean's. But even then, it was how much money the citizen groups could bundle. Increasingly, meetings at union halls, churches or community organizations have become less important.

Presidential campaigns have a more predictable daily schedule these days. Pose with kids at some school for the evening news and then spend the rest of the day raising money. Instead of union halls, the place to be is the dining room of a rich donor. As someone who has raised a great deal of money over the years, I was appalled at the last presidential campaign. You could deliver thousands of dollars in checks and the campaigns wouldn't even say thank you any more. They simply asked, "How much more can you bring in?"

This new frontloaded system will ensure that major fundraisers are the most powerful players in the party. They are the ones that will get private meetings and dinners in their home, as well as the leverage to influence key policy issues. Unless citizen groups can raise more money, you will see their influence fade and insurgency campaigns disappear.

Before our party becomes less democratic, we should at least have a vigorous intra-party debate about how we nominate our leaders. For now, however, that doesn't appear to be happening.

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