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The Garden: Inside and Out

A View From the Floor: Life as a Delegate

By Linda S. Drucker, Special to The Crimson

NEW YORK--CBS, Newsweek and Lou Harris all seemed to take my vote for granted, assuming that delegates pledged to Ted Kennedy would vote for an open convention out of loyalty to their candidate.

And last night I did what they expected--cast my ballot for an open convention--against the advice of those who contend that "unbinding" the delegates would undo 12 years of reform efforts, against my own initial misgivings, and despite the probability that I risked attaching my self to a losing cause. What motivated me, however, was not blind loyalty to Kennedy as much as an instinctive rebelliousness against tying my own hands and wielding a club over my own head--and doing the same to all future delegates.

For a long time, Kennedy's attempts to release delegates from their commitments to support the candidate they are bound to deeply offended my sense of fairness. It seemed to be a tawdry way to manipulate the rules in order to gain political advantage, changing the way the game was played in midstream. The precedent deeply disturbed me. I wondered if the change would inch us back toward a system that allowed individual delegates to hold the presidential nomination captive to personal whim.

At first glance, Kennedy's proposal seemed both opportunistic and anti-democratic, while Carter's looked straightforward enough--simply playing fair with the voters who elected the delegates. And yet beneath Carter's rhetoric lay a far more insidious attempt at manipulation.

Rule F(3c) destroys any possibility of a late challenge to the front-runner's nomination. What Democrats really did last night was to confirm, in their party at least, the tyranny of the early primaries and to make a challenge to an incumbent even more difficult than it already is.

In 1978, the Carter-controlled Winograd Commission, charged with revamping the presidential nominating process, adopted the rule unanimously. It is ironic that rank outsider Jimmy Carter, who used the 1976 rule to claw his way from obscurity to the presidency, supported the changes from early on. "They (the White House) wanted to make sure that no outsiders will do to Jimmy Carter in 1980 what Jimmy Carter did to everyone else in 1976," said one commission member.

As it stands now, a delegate's position already borders on impotence. He or she cannot place rules or platform amendments on the floor without previous approval of a convention committee, and frequently delegates do not even have much say in nominating those who serve on those important committees, as the candidates' organizations agree to each other's nominees in advance and often present delegates with an approved list "in order to save time."

Whether you call it the "robot rule" or the "faithful delegate principle" it is obvious that F(3c) removes from delegates any shred of responsibility or freedom of choice and makes their judgment completely irrelevant. They merely become a human incarnation of the mathematical proportions of the primaries.

With the adoption of this rule, delegates will not become truer agents of the voters, as was intended. Before last night, delegates' chief strength lay in their ability to negotiate with their own candidate in an effort to strengthen his position on the issues they were concerned about. They were able to do this by their legitimate claim to be acting in the name of the voters back home. Now, they are firmly in the candidate's pockets; he can remove them--or more likely, threaten to remove them--even if they are only "seeking" to disagree with his policies. More so than ever before, delegates will become the simple foot soldiers of candidate organizations, simply towing the line handed down from above.

The significance of the struggle for an open convention extends far beyond its value as a litmus test of the political muscle of Jimmy Carter or Teddy Kennedy, or even its impact on the 1980 presidential race. For now, the selection of a party's presidential nominee has become wholly dependent on the mathematical outcome of the state primaries and caucuses, stripping political conventions of virtually all meaning. Conventions may not be the best method of choosing a presidential candidate, but until the entire nominating process is overhauled, the conventions remain the only way to address changes in a candidate's for-tunes between the last primary and the start of the fall campaign.

If delegates who were in fact hand-screened by Carter's campaign organization before their election feel they want to change their preference, that probably signifies there is reason for a change. Delegates must be empowered to decide whether a "Billygate" or a 21-per-cent approval rating in the polls is serious enough to justify scrapping an incumbent president, or whether such a decision requires a scandal of Watergate proportions. With an open convention rule defeated, delegates are bound not only to candidates, but also to a stifling--perhaps even intolerable--status quo.

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