Mike Duncan has worked behind the scenes in GOP politics for 30 years. He's been a precinct captain, a county chairman, a state chairman, and a national officer, among other things. Since January 2007 he's been the Chairman of the Republican National Committee -- and there's a pretty good chance you've never heard of him.
On the other hand, you've almost certainly heard of his counterpart on the Democratic National Committee. Howard Dean, the darling of the liberal blogosphere in 2003-04, became DNC Chairman in 2005 on the strength of the notoriety he earned as a politician. You must remember his presidential campaign. It was a real scream.
Last night, on the way home for the first day of the Conservative Political Action Committee, I stopped at a reception hosted by the RNC and chatted with Duncan for a bit about the Democrats' race. (He didn't want to talk too much about the Republican candidates -- "I'm the umpire," he said.)
The Democrats seem to be on a collision course toward an ugly fight. The proportional allocation rules they adopted in the '70s will make it very difficult for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to secure a majority of delegates on the strength of electoral success alone. An internal Obama campaign memo that was leaked earlier this week projected that after the last primary vote is cast, Obama will have 1806 delegates and Clinton will have 1789. Neither figure would constitute a majority, which means that the nomination would have to be decided by appeals to the superdelegates -- 796 Democratic leaders and elected officials who can vote at the convention however they like -- or even by a fight over whether to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations.
Duncan revealed that Howard Dean has called him up and asked if the RNC would be enforcing their sanctions on states that scheduled caucuses or primaries earlier than RNC rules allowed. Duncan told him that they would be ("we're the law and order party," he joked). Republican candidates may end up bringing their alternate delegates to St. Paul, and those people may get to attend as guests, but probably not as voting delegates.
That's a pretty easy call for Duncan, though. When the national parties decided to punish state parties for moving their contests early, the RNC announced that they'd sanction Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming by cutting their delegate slates in half. The DNC announced that they'd sanction Florida and Michigan by not letting them seat any delegates. The Republican sanctions won't affect the result of the fight for the nomination, and they won't disenfranchise entire states.
The same isn't true of the Democratic sanctions. By adopting those draconian rules, the DNC put itself in an impossible position; if they don't enforce the sanctions, particularly if it turns out to matter, Obama's supporters will be furious -- they agreed not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, and weren't even on the ballot in the latter state. If the DNC does enforce the sanctions, they'll alienate not just the Clinton faction but also two battleground states.
There is some talk of holding hastily arranged caucuses in Florida and Michigan to select delegates that will be seated. Whether or not that plan succeeds, the fact that it's come to this for the Democrats illustrates why it's better to have a low-profile party chairman like Mike Duncan, who is an experienced political operator, than to have a chairman like Howard Dean, who is popular with activists but who doesn't know what he's doing. It's impossible to imagine Duncan calling Dean for tips on how to run a political party.
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