The Republican National Convention was mostly rained out Monday. But it did one thing that may prove to be of great significance in the 2012 cycle and beyond. As part of the rules it adopted, the convention authorized the party to appoint a commission with authority to change the delegate selection rules. This is a departure from past Republican practice. Up to and including 2004, the Republican National Convention was the final authority on delegate selection rules, and the party had no legal authority to change them over the next four years, as the national Democratic Party has had. The perspicacious Marc Ambinder has the details. Ambinder sees this as a power grab that will antagonize the grassroots of the party; I have a somewhat different take.
Unfortunately, the Republican commission will have no authority to displace Iowa and South Carolina as the first primaries in the schedule. It will, apparently, have authority to allow earlier caucuses to compete with Nevada, if not Iowa, on the theory that national convention delegates are not actually selected in precinct caucuses (technically, these caucuses only select delegates to county or state conventions, who in turn select the actual national convention delegates).
Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan has been in touch with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean on this issue. They understand that changes in party rules can only be effective if state legislatures act, and at this point both Democrats and Republicans control a significant number of legislatures—and in many states governors and one or both houses of the legislature are controlled by different parties. So changes in the calendar need, broadly speaking, to be bipartisan.
This year's schedule, in which more than half the states voted in the five weeks between January 3 and February 5 resulted from (a) Iowa's and New Hampshire's determination to retain their first-in-the-nation status and (b) other states rushing to get in early contests. This was counterproductive in some cases, at least for Michigan and Florida Democrats; those states jumped the February 5 deadline and voted earlier, and Dean deprived them of all their delegates during the period when the nomination was still being contested (they were fully seated in Denver, when it didn't matter). As it turned out, Michigan would have had great influence if it had stuck to a February 19 date, when only Wisconsin ended up voting; if Hillary Clinton had carried Michigan (as she probably would have), that would have balanced Barack Obama's victory in Wisconsin and prevented him from chalking up 11 straight victories in February.
It turned out also that states voting on March 4 or later had more influence than anyone else imagined. Clinton's victories in most of them were not enough to stop Obama, but they were enough to give the Clintons two nights of the Democrats' four-night convention and to make Clinton the likely frontrunner for 2012 if Obama should lose in 2008.
I would like to see both parties oust Iowa and New Hampshire from their preferred positions. That's obviously not going to happen. But perhaps we'll see a more rational schedule, one which doesn't put the initial contests in the twelve days of Christmas, other pivotal contests in the dead of winter, and 22 states on a single day. I gather that the Republicans' decision to authorize a commission was the work of Mike Duncan and other longtime professional Republicans, rather than that of the McCain campaign, and that Howard Dean really did the heavy lifting on the Democratic side rather than the Obama campaign. Good for them.