Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Over the past week there has been a spirited discussion of the 2008 Democratic primary at Corrente. One point of contention in the comments has been the way principles were invoked in the heat of the process. For instance, caucuses were heavily criticized as being too prone to fraud. I think caucuses are useful in theory because they help measure the intensity of a candidate’s support, not just breadth of it. That’s important in a general election because a motivated base is crucial to an effective get-out-the-vote effort.

In practice, though, the caucus system is unworkable because it has no transparency and no auditing. Partisans gather in a gymnasium and only the people gathered know what’s going on. Rules can be bent or broken, outright fraud can occur, and in the aftermath there are just charges or countercharges.

The party has little interest in investigating because once the nomination is clinched only bad things could come of it: De-legitimizing the nominee or further inflaming the losing side. Barring radical changes like extensive live streaming (web cams for everyone!) during the process, and an independent audit afterwards, caucus results in any close contest will be viewed with deep skepticism.

Another example of principles being hurriedly invoked has to do with the convention calendar. State parties eager to increase the relevance of their vote have frequently moved their election dates in defiance of the national party. The national party threatens sanctions, usually in the form of disallowing the delegates, and in a tight race the winner of those states will have a powerful incentive to invoke the sanctity of the vote and the specter of disenfranchisement to argue for counting the delegates.

Making these points when the stakes are so high carries more than a whiff of self-interest. It’s much more persuasive if one can point to such positions prior to the horse race. So even though we are over two and a half years from the next presidential election, right now is an especially good time to articulate some principles. Once candidates start to declare, it becomes much harder to raise them without having it perceived as being for someone’s benefit.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how I’d like to see the nominating process conducted/analyzed. Whether one intends to participate in the process or not (the comments at Corrente suggest quite a few people were sufficiently alienated by 2008 to swear off further involvement), primary season will be big news; it will be helpful to have a decent frame if only for jaded observation.

  • Caucus results should be lightly regarded for the reasons above.
  • State parties should have to live with sanctions from the national party for changing election dates. Disenfranchisemet because of that is the responsibility of the state party, not the national one. The national one, in its wisdom, sets the calendar how it likes. State parties should be expected to abide by that or suffer the consequences.
  • Debates should be open to any candidate that is actively campaigning, has field offices in upcoming (say six weeks) election states and is polling above the margin of error in at least half of the major polls. (A candidate’s internal polling results shouldn’t be used.)
  • A candidate’s position on an issue should be qualified by the nature of that position. For instance, most Democratic candidates will probably pay lip service to single payer. But there is a world of difference between “sure, I’d love for us to have it” and “this is my top domestic priority, a vote for me is a vote for single payer, and I will rally a citizen occupation of Washington starting the first day Congress is in session to make that happen.”
  • A candidate’s position should also be qualified by the ability of the candidate to make the change happen. Presidents have great latitude in executive areas like judicial nominations and federal agency rule making, less so in legislation. A Democrat who promises liberal utopia based on getting a raft of legislation through Congress – especially the House – is probably blowing smoke. That said, reality is malleable. We are told by our political betters that single payer is unrealistic, but a campaign like the one described above could make it suddenly become realistic.
  • Finally, we need a policy platform to grade candidates against. I’d humbly recommend a project I’ve contributed to as an example. Over the past few months the community at Corrente has been working on a 12 point platform, and I think it’s quite good. Here is an earlier version with a good breakdown of its different components, and here is the latest iteration. It’s been formulated outside of election season with the goal of creating a durable and just set of policies. I think it’s a fine yardstick to measure candidates against. I’m sure some will find it lacking, but the point is to have something to evaluate candidates against.

Those are my markers. What are yours?