Opinion: How the Democratic nomination became a crowded field

David Shribman

You probably missed it, because some of the major papers missed its significance, too: the death of former Rep. Don Fraser. In fact you may never have heard of Fraser, who also served a record four terms as mayor of Minneapolis. But he shaped the politics of the last half-century of American life, with particular influence on the 2020 presidential election he will not live to see to its conclusion—but which he witnessed in its messy, muddled and mindless start.

Fraser, who died at 95, was celebrated for hearings exposing efforts by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and South Korean intelligence personnel to manipulate American affairs—a theme that has echoes in our troubled times. But that is not what catapulted Fraser into a transformative figure in American politics.

Unmentioned in his obituaries in The New York Times and his hometown Star and Tribune was Fraser’s involvement in the commission bearing his name, along with that of the late Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, that created the modern Democratic presidential nomination system and which was later adopted, in time and in large measure, by the Republicans as well. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the McGovern-Fraser commission gave us the nomination system now playing out in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country.

Before McGovern and Fraser, an ally of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and initially regarded as a reluctant warrior in the party reform movement, rewrote the rules of politics, presidential nominees were chosen in a fashion unrecognizable today. In the years before the commission’s strictures, there were virtually no rules governing the selection of convention delegates, who are the key figures in selecting the eventual party nominee. State parties and state legislatures — perhaps the least unsuitable principals for this task in the history of democratic rule — set out the procedures as they liked. There was mischief all around. Cronyism prevailed. Discrimination reigned. Bosses ruled.

In fact the only principle that prevailed was the one set out by William Magear Tweed, the Tammany boss in 19th century New York politics—another situation where democracy meant never having to say you’re sorry for trampling democratic norms. The Tweed doctrine: ‘’I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.’’

The bosses did get to do the nominating — until McGovern and Fraser snatched away control of the process and left the bosses out in the cold and, in many celebrated cases, actually out of the convention hall itself.

Much of what McGovern-Fraser changed is in the small type of party procedure, arcane but vital elements such as forbidding ‘’proxy voting’’ and eliminating ‘’unit rule.’’ In all, the commission set out 18 guidelines; no state had been in violation of fewer than six of those procedures. ‘’By any reasonable standards,’’ the political scientists Michael Hagen and William Meyer wrote, ‘’this was not mere ‘tinkering’ with the rules.’’

One phrase was easily understood: ‘’prohibit ex-officio designation of delegates.’’ Everyone knew what that meant. It meant a new dawn in American politics.

“I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party,’’ said Mr. McGovern, the eventual 1972 nominee who would lose 49 states to Richard Nixon, “and 20 million people walked out.’’

The result was a new look at the 1972 convention that Hunter Thompson described as being “like a scene from the final hours of the Roman Empire.’’ Perhaps. But the convention didn’t include Mayor Richard Daley, the villain of the Chicago convention, ejected when the credentials committee ruled the Illinois slate did not reflect the diversity stipulated by the commission. The state’s eventual delegates included the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Fraser would be remembered for Koreagate, as the 1977-1978 scandal would be called, for Minnesota’s Fair Housing Act of 1961, for urging relaxed relations with Cuba and for opposing the Chile’s military government.

But his greatest legacy grew out of quiet lunches at the Iron Gate, the idiosyncratic Mediterranean restaurant on 17th Street in northwest Washington where much of the new political world was shaped. There is no plaque there, but the impact is unmistakable.

In 1968, there were only 15 presidential primaries. In recent years there have been about 40. Between 1952 and 1968, the earliest date for a presidential candidate announcement came in mid October of the year before the election (Robert Taft, October 1951). This time, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland already has been running for two years. By the time October comes around—the 2020 equivalent of the Taft announcement—some of the two dozen Democratic candidates already will have dropped out of a race that increasingly is a marathon, not a sprint.

One of the Fraser tributes described him as a ‘’true champion for good.’’ That remark came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.