My blog/newspaper column earlier this week mined only a thin layer of the rich material in the new edition of David Price’s book, “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.”
I return today for more: the 4th District Congressman’s role in reforming the Democratic Party’s presidential-nominating process.
And electing Joe Biden.
My boss, Governor Jim Hunt, was appointed in 1981 to chair the national party’s Commission on Presidential Nomination. Democrats had lost three of the last four presidential races. The party saw bitter battles over nominating rules.
Hunt recruited Price to be the commission’s staff director. Price had just spent a year as executive director of the state Democratic Party, taking a leave from teaching at Duke University.
Now he had to swim with the sharks in Washington. Democrats were split from the Jimmy Carter-Ted Kennedy contest in 1980. There were deep divisions between liberals and moderates, between regions and between supporters of various presidential hopefuls.
David spent most weeks working in Washington; I helped him stay connected with Governor Hunt. We spent hours on the phone at night. I watched him build trust and consensus among wildly disparate commission members from across the country and the often-volatile political operatives who served on advisory committees.
The Hunt Commission’s major reform was to give party leaders and elected officials (“PL/EOs”) slots as unpledged delegates to national conventions. Price writes that the term “superdelegates” is misleading: “We certainly did not see them as king- and queen-makers, much less as some sort of rump convention.”
Instead, the delegate slots “were designed to correct an unintended consequence of earlier reforms: the virtual elimination of elected officials and even some top party officials from convention delegations.”
But the so-called “superdelegates” became increasingly controversial later, especially after the DNC increased their numbers. Supporters of Bernie Sanders pushed after 2016 to deny those delegates convention votes for President.
Price proposed an alternative, reducing the number of PL/EOs from 750 to 500. But the DNC stripped the unpledged delegates of a first-ballot vote in 2020. Price writes:
“This is a worrisome outcome, not mainly for the members of Congress, governors and mayors who justifiably feel aggrieved, but for the party itself, which seems to be once again inviting the disengagement of its elected officials from the convention and party affairs.”
Price takes pride in another reform.
In 2005, he co-chaired the DNC Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling. It addressed the unrepresentative nature of the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests. To ensure “greater geographic and ethnic/racial diversity,” Price writes, Nevada and South Carolina were added to the early schedule. He adds:
“Any doubts about the significance of our work were belatedly dispelled…by South Carolina’s dramatic role in reversing Joe Biden’s fortunes and putting him on the path to nomination in the presidential contest of 2020.”
Once again, David Price quietly got a big job done.