A plea to Clinton campaign: Don't use Florida and Michigan to block future reform

by Rob Richie // Published May 9, 2008
Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan have every reason to be frustrated about not having contests that elected delegates to the Democratic convention in Denver this August. But I hope they remember where to point their finger of blame: their state parties.

I'm a big fan of the parties establishing a rational schedule for nominating presidential candidates. My current favorite is the American Plan, perhaps ending with a single national primary the first Tuesday in June, but any number of plans are better than what we have - -see our FixThePrimaries website detailing several of them.

There's one common thread through every plan, however: the parties will need to enforce them, and states can't just move their primary or caucus to the front after the plan's been established.

That's what Florida and Michigan did in the past year. Party leaders in those states were understandably frustrated at being left out in past elections, and they didn't want it to happen again. So even though the Democratic National Committee went through a lengthy process of deciding how to modify their rules (putting South Carolina and Nevada into the January mix with Iowa and New Hampshire and having all other states wait until at least February 5th), Michigan and Florida last year passed laws establishing a January primary.

In the summer of 2007 the Democratic National Committee (DNC) made it clear that trying to establish a January primary would have severe consequences -- these states' delegates would not be seated at the national convention. The DNC offered alternatives like caucuses. But the Michigan and Florida parties essentially played chicken with the DNC, metaphorically putting their states' voters directly in front of the rushing train.

But the DNC didn't blink, so all the major campaigns swore off campaigning in Michigan and Florida.

Now that Senator Hillary Clinton is behind in delegates, her campaign is using high-toned rhetoric to urge that the January votes now be counted -- even though hers was the only major candidate with a name on the Michigan ballot and no campaign had operations in Florida Yesterday Sen. Clinton wrote: "whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be hamstrung in the general election if a fair and quick resolution is not reached that ensures that the voices of [Florida and Michigan] voters are heard..... The Republicans won an election [in 2000] by successfully opposing a fair counting of votes in Florida. As Democrats, we must reject any proposals that would do the same."

Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan of course matter, and I hope for their sakes that some agreement is made. But Sen. Clinton, the comparison between Florida in November 2000 and Florida in 2008 does not wash. If ever we are to have a better nomination process, states will need to abide by their national party rules -- and indeed I think they will if those rules are clearly fair. Parties can't establish a precedent of casting those rules aside when it is politically convenient to do so.