Political Hay

The New Byzantium

California Republicans will decide this weekend just how unprincipled they're willing to be about giving their state new "clout."

By 2.8.07

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This weekend the members of California's Republican State Central Committee will vote on whether to go from being a no-clout to a mini-clout state in the party's presidential nominating process.

Lobbying among the members is fierce as they gather for their semi-annual convention. A member of the state Assembly has proposed a change in the party's by-laws so that 53 of the 170 California delegates to the 2008 national convention will be chosen by the State Central Committee, not by voters in the June primary election.

The background is as byzantine as politics gets. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has complained loudly that California, the nation's most populous state, has no "clout" in the nomination process because its primary takes place long after the nomination has been sewn up in New Hampshire, Iowa, and elsewhere. He says it isn't fair that "all those guys" (candidates from both parties) swoop down on the Golden State to scoop up its campaign gold, then head back to wherever they came from to spend it. Hence, his support for a special presidential primary to be held on February 5 next year. The regular primary would be held in June for Congressional and state legislative seats.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore says the no-clout argument is only a smokescreen to provide an opportunity for legislators who would otherwise be term-limited in 2008 to expand their tenure.

The logic works this way: If the presidential primary is moved up, these legislators (mostly Democrats) will work to put on the ballot a measure to expand term limits. If that wins in February, they will thus be able to run once again in June when they otherwise would be out of luck.

Now comes Mr. DeVore, who proposes that members of the State Central Committee elect approximately one-third of the party's delegates for next year by way of a by-laws change that would only take effect if the early presidential primary does not became a reality. This way, he contends, California's "clout" would be insured. There is a big "if" involved. If it were to happen, the loss of one-third of the delegates from what would otherwise be a winner-take-all primary might make a difference in the national scheme of things. This "if" and "might" rest on two assumptions: 1) that Senator John McCain is the favorite to a win the presidential primary in California; and 2) that delegates to the state party's convention don't favor McCain and will votes for someone else.

DeVore says, "Personally, I do not support any candidate for President as yet." Maybe not, but his move is seen by many as an anti-McCain one. This suspicion is sharpened by the fact that his proposal would "sunset" after 2008 and by his rash statement that "Senator McCain seems to be more a product of the New York Times than of the party of Ronald Reagan."

Ronald Reagan was a strong believer in the primary system. "Trust the voters" was his watchword. If he were here today, I think he would find this move to take one-third of the vote away from the voters and put it in the hands of people who are party officials or their appointees a very bad idea.

The Democratic legislators' strategy of putting an expanded term limits measure on a supposed February 2008 presidential primary ballot also rests on a big "if." It would get on the ballot only if two-thirds of the members of legislature vote in favor of it. That is far from a certainty, for a number of Republican lawmakers do not favor spending $90 million of the taxpayers' money for the vain privilege of hoping that California will gain "clout."

The honest way for the state to gain such "clout" would be for the legislature to deliberate this issue fully, then vote on whether to move the entire primary process permanently up to an early date, thus saving the taxpayers from spending $90 million to feed the ambitions of politicians.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”