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If wishes were changes...

Can the Democrats reform their chaotic presidential primary process?

On our cosmic holiday wish list, these items would surely rank high:

1. We'd love to be able to flap our arms and soar with the birds.

2. We'd love to be able to live forever, or at least until the Cubs win the World Series.

3. We'd love to see a rational, non-dysfunctional presidential nomination process.

Good luck on all counts. Nevertheless, we should probably give some props to the Democrats, who are at least exploring the idea of #3...even though the odds of them actually succeeding are quite slim.

Buried late last week, amidst all the coverage about Afghanistan and health care, was the news item concerning the activities of the nebulously named Democratic Change Commission. This party panel, created last March, is trying to overhaul the Democratic primary rules and calendar, for obvious reasons.

Though the 2008 nomination chaos now seems to be part of the distant past, roughly on a par with the Paleolithic Age, let us quickly recall that the party's front-loaded contests began on Jan. 3; that Florida and Michigan got penalized by the party for moving up their contests too early (thus rendering their primaries moot, while triggering protracted disputes between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton); and that it appeared for a long time that the contest would be decided by the unpledged party regulars known as "superdelegates" (20 percent of all Democratic delegates) who are not beholden to the will of the primary season voters.

Accordingly, the Democratic Change Commission intends to propose some fundamental reforms - such as delaying the opening contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) until at least Feb. 1; ensuring that none of the subsequent contests take place before March 1; suggesting that all those subsequent contests be grouped "by region or sub-region"); and reducing the clout of the unpledged superdelegates.

Party leaders believe that this is an opportune time to reform their presidential nomination process, since 2012 is obviously not expected to be a contentious race on the Democratic side. Their wish list is to install a rational process in time for the open intramural contest in 2016. The commission said late last week that, all told, it wants to create "a deliberative process that benefits all voters and caucus-goers through the country."

A deliberative process that benefits all voters....hang on a second, that sounds vaguely familiar. Let me check my own story archives...yep, here it is, dated May 14, 2000. I had just returned from a trip to Indianapolis, where this time it was the Republicans who were trying to reform their own primary process. And the guy running the GOP reform group had just declared: "What we need is careful deliberation. We want more people involved in participating."

This Republican reform effort was a big deal at the time. After considerable brainstorming, the GOP panelists came up with the idea of scheduling a long, deliberative primary season that would start with the smallest states voting first and culminate with the biggest states voting last. They called on the Democrats to join them in this reform effort, but, interestingly, the Democrats spurned the offer and said in a statement that the existing primary process "seems to be working well."

Now the positions are reversed; today's Democrats are calling on the Republicans to join them in the new reform effort. But there's no way the GOP will do that, in part because party insiders remember what happened in the summer of 2000 - when the Republlican plan was swiftly squashed at the national convention in Philadelphia. There's no need to replay the details (the biggest states didn't want to vote last, stuff like that); suffice it to say that this kind of reform is nearly impossible, because everyone is always looking out for their own best interests.

Which brings us to the Democrats. The current reform effort will have to pass muster with the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee - which is entirely comprised of superdelegates...the same superdelegates whose clout would be reduced, if the reformers had their way. (By the way, the superdelegates were created 25 years ago during an earlier reform effort, in order to blunt the clout of "the people" and give party regulars more say.)

As for this idea of crafting a more deliberative Democratic primary season, by scheduling contests at rational intervals and grouping them "by region or sub-region," why should we assume that the states tapped to vote last would go along with that? Under the reform plan, state parties would be rewarded for their compliance, perhaps by giving them special perks at the national convention. But would this "carrot" approach work any better than the old "stick" approach? (The national party threatened to punish Florida and Michigan if they scheduled their '08 contests too early, but they did it anyway, and we saw the nutty results.)

So let us see how far this Democratic effort actually goes. It's certainly a noble gesture. But, as singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith croons, "If wishes were changes/ We'd all be in roses."