The ideological fight for the soul and future direction of the Democratic Party is about to boil over. A commission created in the aftermath of Democrats’ 2016 presidential primary is meeting in December for the last time to make reform recommendations. This meeting is going to be a doozy.
Debate over how to reform the Democratic National Committee and the presidential primary process pits Hillary Clinton loyalists against the Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wing. How the DNC handles their contending views about how the party should be run promises to be a painful moment of truth.
The reforms being weighed by the commission may have little effect on the midterm elections a year from now, but they will be critical two years later, in 2020, and will determine whether the two main factions within the party continue to claw at each other when they should be uniting against Republicans.
Among the reforms being floated by members of the commission, four big ones stand out and are at the center of debate.
Reduce the power of superdelegates
Sanders and his camp were outraged by the weight of so-called "superdelegates" during the primary process and decried the fact that they gave Clinton a sizable, nearly insurmountable, lead. Clinton would have won the nomination with or without them, but the superdelegates, who are not bound to any candidate, remain highly contentious. And their numbers have grown as one election cycle has followed another. They now number more than 700. Superdelegates are able to vote for their preferred candidate at the convention, even if that candidate lost the primary in their state.
The commission is considering a reform that would reduce the superdelegates power either by barring DNC members from being delegates or by binding their votes to the choice made by their states. Sanders is focused on the commission’s work now that the 2017 elections (which the Democrats swept) are over and is taking his case public in interviews and newspaper op-eds. He demands a reduction in the number of superdelegates. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Clinton’s running mate and a superdelegate himself, has went one better last week and called for eliminating them altogether.
Open up all primaries
Reformers are proposing allowing independents to vote in Democratic primaries, encouraging the participation of voters new to the party. In 2016, Sanders performed well among independents (although he caucuses with Senate Democrats, he was actually elected as an independent himself). Clinton performed well in closed primaries where only Democrats could vote.
This one is tricky because registration rules differ by state and it’s questionable what mechanisms the DNC could use to enforce changes. New York’s primary is the poster child, according to Sanders-appointed members of the commission, because it requires voters to be registered as Democrats six months before the primary.
Open up all caucuses
Caucuses are a longer and more involved process than simply showing up to vote in a primary. Participants often group together in rooms, explain their choices, and try to persuade fellow caucus-goers to vote for their preferred candidate.
There’s support within the commission for opening up caucuses to those who cannot physically attend. While caucuses tend to reward well-organized campaigns, they have lower turnout and require a bigger time commitment than primary voting. Some Democrats want to set up a system so those who cannot be present at the caucus can vote.
DNC members have no access to the budget and don’t know where the money flowing in and out of the party committee's coffers is going. There’s discussion among commission members to make it so at least those on the DNC’s executive board have access to the party’s finances — especially on line items more than $100,000.
There’s also talk of proposing a measure to crack down on conflicts of interest. Sanders-appointed members are gunning for this one, but don’t have much hope of it being adopted by the entire DNC. Their argument: If you’re a voting member of the DNC you shouldn’t have a contract with the DNC; if you just made millions off a contract with the DNC, or are a vendor for the party, you shouldn’t be allowed to be a voting DNC member or have a place on committees. But adopting it would dramatically change the way the DNC operates.
There’s also talk of establishing judicial and financial oversight committees to ensure rules and bylaws are enforced and whatever new reforms that are adopted are fully enacted. Putting enforcement tools in places is one way the Sanders wing hopes to make committees representative of the varying ideologies within the party.
Sanders himself has made the rounds in support of reducing superdelegates, opening up primaries and caucuses, and budget transparency. But tensions within the DNC and commission are high, particularly among the Sanders wing — who see December as a defining moment for the party.
There’s a fear among Sanders supporters that DNC members more opposed to substantially changing the way the party functions will try to strike a deal on superdelegates because that proposal is garnering a lot of outside attention — and will likely be inconsequential in 2020 — to present an appearance of unity, while ignoring more significant reforms.
“I’m afraid this is a dog and pony show and they’re just playing this game,” said DNC member Nomiki Konst, who sits on the Unity Reform Commission.
Konst and others in the DNC are agitated over the lack of representation Sanders supporters have on not just the unity commission but the Rule and Bylaws Committee, which will consider the final proposal produced by the commission before it goes before the entire DNC.
“Tom Perez says I’m going to follow the unity commission — of course you’re going to follow the unity commission, because it’s stacked with all of your people, so you’re going to get the votes you want,” she said.
For all the pushback from party leaders in Congress about the state of the DNC and its impact on their ability to win majorities, the division among DNC members is undeniable. And if Sanders supporters feel ignored at the final commission meeting, they’ll drag the fight fully into the spotlight.
“People don’t trust the Democratic brand, and they don’t trust the Democratic brand for a lot of reasons, but a lot of it is due to the DNC,” Konst said.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who also sits on the reform commission, came close to saying she wasn’t sure why it existed in the first place, but backtracked and said its purpose is to “find a way to bring some unity to the party.”
“I think people that are on the commission that are talking are doing a disservice to the commission, and you can you tell them I said that,” Fudge said.
She wouldn’t discuss what the commission is considering or what reforms she plans to support, but she that didn’t stop her from taking a jab at progressives within the DNC.
“Obviously there were some differences of opinion between what some call the Hillary wing and the Bernie wing,” Fudge said. “I don’t think there is a Bernie wing, because Bernie’s not a Democrat. I think there are progressives that think we need to change the way we do some things.”