Last May, a group of 21 Democrats gathered in a drab conference room in Washington D.C. It was the first meeting of the “Unity Reform Commission,” a hodgepodge of Democratic operatives, activists and politicians nominated by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez. Three more meetings and six months later, the Unity Commission on Friday is set to vote on its official recommendations for reforming the Democratic Party’s presidential primary process and electoral strategy.
“The party cannot remain an institution largely dominated by the wealthy and inside-the-Beltway consultants,” Sanders wrote in POLITICO Magazine last month. “It must open its doors and welcome into its ranks millions of working people and young people who desperately want to be involved in determining the future of our nation.”
With a potentially historic number of Democrats getting ready to launch a bid for their party’s nomination in 2020, the DNC has barely 18 months to institute any reforms the Unity Commission recommends. We asked strategists, academics and members of Congress to weigh in on whether the party needs to change, and if so, how. Here is what they said about superdelegates, open primaries and renewing a party struggling with internal divisions and minority rule. –Taylor Gee
‘This isn’t a time for incremental changes’
Ron Klain is former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.
The Democratic Party’s nominating process is broken. Its flaws were made plain in 2016, where one candidate won by millions of votes, but due to the opacity, complexity and obscurity of the rules that led to her victory, the result was subject to dispute and derision. This isn’t a time for incremental changes—it’s time for a radical set of reforms based on two core principles: Make the process more democratic and more transparent.
This would require three major changes. First, we should eliminate all caucuses outside of Iowa, and select delegates only through primaries. Caucuses are contrary to the principle of one person/one vote, discourage participation by lower-income voters, and are intimidating to new voters. Second, we should open primaries to independents (but not Republicans) who want to help pick our nominee. If we want independents to back our candidate in the fall, we should welcome their input in picking that candidate in the spring. And third, superdelegates should be stripped of their votes on picking a nominee. Yes, we want these party leaders at our convention and helping to write our platform—but when the roll is called to pick a presidential nominee, only delegates selected through presidential primaries should have a vote.
‘The number of changes the DNC has to make is precisely zero’
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to POLITICO Magazine and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”
The number of changes the Democratic National Committee has to make is precisely zero. All the complaints that have been made in the wake of the 2016 primary are distractions that obscure the more critical debate over the best ideological path forward for the party.
Superdelegates didn’t throw the race to Hillary Clinton; she won the most pledged delegates from the primary process. And that wasn’t because of closed primaries, as Clinton won 15 out of the 24 open primaries.
The DNC has become the punching bag of choice, because many people wrongly assume the committee controls every aspect of the Democratic Party. Last month Senator Sanders, in backing calls for more DNC budget transparency, said, “What is the process by which that money is allocated? We don’t know … you can’t have a few people in a meeting saying, ‘Well, we can’t support the guy in Kansas [or] Montana…’” That’s in reference to complaints that progressive candidates in those states’ special elections didn’t get enough party support. But that was not a DNC decision! The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the respective campaign arms of House and Senate Democrats, allocate money for those candidates.
There are credible arguments for eliminating superdelegates, supporting open primaries (and caucuses) and increasing budget transparency (though if you really want to know where the DNC spends its money, just click here). But the counterarguments are credible, too.
Superdelegates have never overturned the will of the primary electorate, but you might want them around if ever a truly horrific candidate—say, one accused of sexual misconduct—eked through the primaries. Open primaries may give independent voices a bigger role, but primaries closed to Democrats only—as well as caucuses that attract the most committed activists—help to keep out mischievous interlopers. (The status quo of incorporating all forms of contests, most of which are already open primaries, is a sensible compromise.) Excessive budget transparency can lead paralytic second-guessing in the heat of a campaign.
Instead of demanding irrelevant process changes, those who wish to see the Democratic Party move in a more progressive, populist direction can better achieve their goals with this one simple trick: Win more elections.
‘Do away with superdelegates’
Tim Kaine is a United States senator representing Virginia.
The Democratic Party is stronger when we champion small-d democracy. I would urge the Unity Reform Commission to do away with superdelegates, which are given undue influence in the popular nominating contest and make the process less democratic.
‘The Democratic Party needs to change profoundly’
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Of course the Democratic Party needs to change, and it needs to change profoundly.
First, we must get rid of superdelegates. It’s a way of rigging the primaries and skews outcomes. It makes the party undemocratic, unrepresentative and potentially out-of-touch, even if those superdelegates are more likely to back a centrist candidate, as they were in 2016, than a candidate further to the left.
Second, independents certainly should be allowed to vote in Democratic primaries. I am less convinced that we need Republicans to come in and potentially create mischief, but I support opening primaries to independents who may seek to become more engaged in the party’s selection of candidates and may very well vote for a Democrat in general elections.
Third, the concerns about budget transparency have taken on greater urgency in light of Donna Brazile’s recent book. We need the DNC’s budget to be completely independent and disengaged from presidential candidates until the nomination is officially decided. Once a Democrat has clinched the nomination, you would necessarily assume his or her budget would be interlinked with the party’s, but there is a clear conflict of interest when candidates make deals with party leadership prior to the conclusion of the primaries.
‘End special superdelegate voting privileges’
Jeff Merkley is a U.S. senator representing Oregon.
The Democratic Party is and should be the party of the people, and it’s important that we take a hard look at our internal processes to make sure our party truly lives up to its name. For example, the last election showed the need to end special superdelegate voting privileges. While our Republican colleagues are engaging in voter suppression, we need to lead the way on voter empowerment and guarantee same-day registration and absentee voting opportunities.
And we need to be as transparent as possible to make sure every Democrat has faith that the results accurately reflect the will of our voters. I appreciate the time and care that the Unity Reform Commission has put into this work and am proud that our party is committed to making every vote count.
‘Get rid of caucuses’
Anita Dunn is a Democratic Party strategist and managing director of SKDKnickerbocker.
I give a lot of credit both to the DNC for setting up the Unity Reform Commission, and to the people who have served on it. Thankless job! The temptation to correct for the perceived problems of the past—as opposed to anticipating the trends of the future—tend to be strong in these exercises.
I hope, though, that the party can get rid of caucuses in the nominating process, which are about as unrepresentative as you can get. I have long advocated for figuring out a way to open up the primary processes in closed primary states. Why would the Democratic Party, with our commitment to participation and tearing down roadblocks to voting, continue to keep big roadblocks to participation in place?
Beyond that, the party should announce a debate schedule at the beginning of the two-year primary process, rather than negotiating it midway through the process.
‘Make absolutely clear what Democrats stand for’
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent Magazine and professor at Georgetown University.
What the democrats need now is three things: First, make absolutely clear what they stand for and why. Whether it’s health care, taxes, job creation, action on climate change, trade agreements or the size of the military – Democrats should decide what positions all, or most, agree on and take them to voters in appealing ways.
Second, become more of a “people’s party.” Yes, do away with caucuses and superdelegates. But also demonstrate that full-time professionals do not run the party, at least not by themselves. Try inviting ordinary people to become members and take part in debates, canvassing, political self-education in their congressional districts and localities—and take their ideas seriously.
Third, nominate a candidate for president in 2020 who understands and can speak to the problems and hopes of white working-class voters, without neglecting the interests of racial minorities. Sen. Sherrod Brown fits the bill, although he has to win re-election in Ohio first.
‘Move the DNC out of Washington D.C.’
John Delaney is a U.S. representative of Maryland and declared 2020 presidential candidate.
Over time, we should move the DNC out of Washington D.C., so that it is closer to the people. The focus of the Democratic Party should be the people it serves and the states and districts that we need to win, not its elected officials. It therefore makes sense to make it less a D.C.-centric organization, and the best way to make that point is to move it out of D.C.
‘Limit the unfettered power of the chair’
Mark Longabaugh was a senior Sanders campaign adviser in 2016.
The nominating rules for the Democratic Party should have two goals. First, to strengthen democracy by creating an open process that mobilizes and brings new voters into the party. Second, to produce the strongest possible nominee. The Democratic Party failed on both fronts in 2016.
The Unity Commission needs to put forth an aggressive set of reforms that the Democratic National Committee should adopt. The starting point is the elimination of superdelegates, the most undemocratic aspect of our nominating process. From there, the party needs to reform the caucuses to require unbiased administration, a full head count of voters and absentee ballots. We need open primaries that allow independents to participate and expand the party. And finally, there needs to be fundamental reform of the DNC that limits the unfettered power of the chair and prevents the party apparatus from taking sides and supporting a candidate before the voters have made their choice.
‘Reach out to independents’
Jane Kleeb is chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a member of the Unity Reform Commission
As a party that stands up for expanded democracy every day, we have a responsibility to open our caucus and primary process to independent voters. That’s how we build a coalition to win elections all across the country, not just on the coasts. By reaching out to ndependents, we can build a true coalition of working families who can start to elect more grassroots Democrats to positions up and down the ballot that look like our communities.
While the Democrats’ current caucus process engages the grassroots, it has also locked out too many working families. Caucus reforms like allowing people to vote and leave, same-day voter registration and more accessible locations are critical to ensure all voters have their voice heard. As for superdelegates, I side with Bernie Sanders, Tim Kaine and many grassroots Democrats who think the system is outdated and undemocratic—all superdelegates should be bound by the votes of their states. Our party is strong and diverse, butwe need to listen to the voices of state party leaders and the grassroots, not the “consulting class,” if we want to fix what’s broken in the Democratic Party.
‘Any candidates for the party’s presidential nomination should be a registered Democrat’
Joel Benenson was a strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
We need to balance the party’s needs and interests with our longstanding belief that the more people who participate in the Democratic voting process, the better. There are a few reforms that would help Democrats pursue that goal. First, any candidates for the party’s presidential nomination should be a registered Democrat, and if he or she has run for office in the past, they should have run as a Democrat in their last election. Second, we need to eliminate all caucuses. These are the least open and least democratic part of our current process. And lastly, primaries should be open to registered Democrats and independents. To win general elections we need to win people who are in the middle, so let’s bring them into our process as early as we can.
Superdelegates is a trickier issue. Many of these people have devoted considerable time to the party to keep it strong, so there is an argument that they should have a say in the choosing the party’s nominee. Whether roughly 15 percent of all delegates being superdelegates, the current proportion, is the right number or could be adjusted is an open question. If forced to choose to keep them or eliminate them, I would probably eliminate them because I have confidence in voters. But I’m not sure it is necessary.
‘Rotate starting primary states’
Mark Penn is a former senior adviser and pollster to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Democrats need to abolish superdelegates and all caucuses, and rotate starting primary states. These simple and fair changes will open up the party to better candidates and ensure that every primary voter counts. These are no brainer reforms!
Jason Kander is former secretary of state of Missouri.
As a party, we have an opportunity grow our ranks, but we have to make sure we include everyone in our plans. We can’t tell the newly active Democrats they have to wait their turn, just like we can’t tell the folks who have worked for our party for decades that they’re no longer needed. I hope the Unity Reform Commission does what it can to make sure that everyone interested in having a voice in our party has the opportunity and a seat at the table.
‘Drain the swamp’
Celinda Lake is a Democratic political strategist and pollster.
Democrats must establish a credible position on reform. And the Democratic Party can help lead in that. Right now, Trump and the Republicans have an over-20 point advantage on ‘drain the swamp’ over Democrats. Also, our economic messages are stronger when they are combined with political reform. We should and need to take strong positions on reform to also unite the different groups in our base. We should be for fair redistricting, campaign finance reform and ending Citizens United, curbing the influence of lobbyists, stopping the revolving door, a full and fair Census, accountability and transparency. Our candidates and our party should lead on this.
‘Superdelegates are required to keep their super mouths shut’
Debra Kozikowski is vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
There are three things I’m hoping to see recommended by the commission. First, partially open primaries so that unenrolled voters can participate, as is the norm here in Massachusetts. Secondly, that superdelegates are required to keep their super mouths shut until every state has completed their process, or risk their vote to a challenge. And third, a more open primary debate scheduling process, including a rule that stipulates that any candidate who participates in an unsanctioned debate will lose their place in any party-sanctioned debates.
‘Open the doors to grassroots leaders’
Nina Turner is a former Ohio state senator and president of Our Revolution.
If the Democratic Party hopes to recapture not only its electoral majorities in Congress and state capitals, but its connection to the heart and soul of the people, it must commit itself to work rigorously to achieve unity through reforms. Part of this involves opening the doors to grassroots leaders to be engaged not just to win elections, but to reshape party operations. A great place to start would be adopting transparency in its operations, not allowing the donor class to have more influence than the working class, abolishing superdelegates and committing to diversity beyond just turning out the votes of African Americans and other communities of color. The plurality of voters in America identify as independents. This should send a piercing message to Democrats and Republicans alike—business as usual is over.
‘This is an opportunity for the DNC’
Donna Brazile is former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee.
This is an opportunity for the DNC to demonstrate its commitment to meaningful reform and ensuring a fair election process in 2020. And that’s the best way to assure a victory in 2020.
Here’s hoping the Unity Reform Commission follows through.
‘Some of the demanded reforms are out of the direct control of the DNC’
Josh Putnam is a political scientist and host of the non-partisan blog Frontloading HQ.
Parties are adaptive; they change as their constituencies and the demands of those constituencies change. However, the rules of the presidential nomination process since the system was reformed for the 1972 cycle by the McGovern-Fraser Commission have been mainly stable. That is not to suggest that those rules are the same now as they were in 1972, but rather that the alterations have been more subtle, addressing the shortcomings in the process from the prior cycle or cycles.
The difference this time around is that the demands, primarily from the Sanders faction of the party both on and off the Unity Reform Commission, while targeting perceived problems with the 2016 nomination process, are in some respects out of the direct control of the Democratic National Committee. Opening participation in primaries to unaffiliated voters, for example, overlaps with state laws that would be difficult to change as such a change would entail convincing Republican state legislators to go along with the idea. Additionally, making the caucus process more accessible has been a goal of the party for cycles now. Opening them up does not require as much interaction with Republicans but does face financing issues that may not be able to be easily addressed by a state party even with the help of the DNC. In other areas, the progress is potentially less steep. Curbing the role of superdelegates is within the control of the party though it would mean superdelegates—members of the DNC—voting to strip themselves of some of that influence. The area that is the most open-ended and may see the largest change is in the area of internal party structural reform, mainly on budgetary matters.
‘The presidential primary process must be re-envisioned’
Richard Eskow is host of The Zero Hour radio program and a writer for the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign.
It’s time for Democrats to face facts. Voter approval of the party is at a 25-year low. In a recent Harvard-Harris poll, a majority of Democrats said they supported movements to “take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders.” That sentiment was strongest among the voters the party needs most: young people, people of color and women. Some of these voters haven’t joined a party, or don’t vote. To reach them, Democrats must embrace bold and clear policies that matter to these groups, including: Medicare For All, a renewed labor movement, debt-free college for all generations, equal pay for equal work, an end to mass incarceration, a $15 minimum wage, expanding Social Security and guaranteed family leave.
These policies, if properly presented, will appeal to working Americans of all kinds and colors. But embracing them means challenging the political establishment that has been funding and guiding the party for decades. Democrats must seek many small-dollar donors, rather than a few large contributors. It means becoming more democratic in governance, with full transparency; an end to superdelegates; and plentiful debates, with no gamesmanship in scheduling or content. The presidential primary process must be re-envisioned as a tool for recruitment and organizing, so reforms like same-day enrollment should be encouraged. Democrats can still win by looking beyond the obsolete and divisive paradigms of the nineties — the Mark Penn, slice-and-dice view of the electorate — and drawing moral inspiration from the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to challenge the rich and powerful by uniting the struggle for individual civil rights with the fight for collective economic rights.
Larry Cohen is vice chair of the Unity Reform Commission and chair of Our Revolution
The Democratic Party must be a champion for voting rights and democracy. We can’t just rail against the Republican attacks on voting rights unless we clearly encourage independents and new voters to join us and help lead. I am confident that the Unity Reform Commission will point the way as we meet and adopt proposals for change this weekend. “Voters first” must be our call.