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Reform the Democrats with more democracy

THE DEMOCRATIC Party is desperate to regain control of the governor's office. Understandably so.

It's been 14 years of Republican control, particularly by Republican governors so immediately bored with the job that they readily seek new ones, abandoning the Corner Office and their constituents midterm, either literally or intellectually.

This infuriates Democrats who cannot understand how the electorate can so easily and often be seduced and abandoned by the charms of a Bill Weld or Mitt Romney. Desperate or not, the new reforms proposed for the Democratic primary are both understandable and wrong.

The party is suggesting two changes: One would move the primary date back from September to May or June. This is designed to provide a nominee with more time to pull the party together, end internal squabbling, and raise dollars in advance of the November election.

The second proposal is to make the party's convention even more difficult for alternative or splinter candidates to get on the ballot. In the past, candidates needed to get the support of 15 percent of the convention delegates on the first or second ballot in order to get on the primary ballot. The new proposal requires them to reach the 15 percent on the first convention ballot or they're gone. Again, the objective is the same -- to eliminate intramural fighting and consolidate power behind a nominee.

The problem with American politics is not that campaigns are too short, but rather that they are too long. The electorate becomes bored and cynical along the way. Moving back the party primary to May/June simply means candidates will be forced to begin organizing and fund-raising that much sooner. Do you or I really want those solicitations and negative advertisements to begin any earlier? And moving to an earlier date will foreclose the candidacy of anyone who is not either rich or already an officeholder.

The problem with proposal number two is that it concentrates more power in the hands of the institutional bosses of the Democratic Party who already dominate party conventions. Does anyone really think that American politics needs more party control by party leaders or interest groups?

Under the existing system, it's tough enough for a candidate to get the 15 percent on the first or second ballot. Now, at least delegates could vote for their first choice on the first ballot, and if their first choice failed or they were ambivalent between two candidates, they could cast their second ballot for another candidate, ensuring choices going forward. Truly frivolous candidates couldn't pass the 15 percent threshold under any scenario.

The history of the Democratic Party convention is replete with examples of dark horse candidates who barely made the 15 percent tally, even on the second ballot, then went on to become either the nominee or at least a serious and interesting contender. Kerry in '82 for lieutenant governor, Silber for governor in '90, Reich for governor in '02, to name just a few, were marginal at the convention but interesting to watch thereafter. The party's history is also replete with candidates who convincingly won the convention and miserably failed to carry the popular vote in the primary.

The problem for the Democratic Party is not that primary campaigns are too short or that party leaders have too little control. The problem is that we pick the wrong nominees. We don't need longer campaigns and conventions controlled by powerful institutional interests supporting front-running Beacon Hill insiders.

We need just the opposite. We need open and spirited campaigns that support bold, independent candidates. We need Democratic nominees who offer a progressive vision and an alternative plan, not an echo of the Republican Party or a front for Beacon Hill power brokers and Democratic interest groups.

If the Democratic Party finds a candidate with courage and vision and independence, then the party will unify, no matter how many candidates emerge from a convention or when the primary is held. Reducing the candidate pool via these misguided reforms only reduces the chance of finding that candidate.

Democracy is a messy business. If we merely wanted order, benevolent dictatorships fill the bill. Or we could simply return to the good old days of Tammany Hall, when backroom ward bosses chose the candidate. That cannot be our future.

Winston Churchill once said, the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy. Let's get on with it.

George Bachrach is a former Democratic state senator and one-time gubernatorial candidate who now teaches journalism at Boston University.

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