Democrats are risking a brokered nomination.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic 19th-century treatise Democracy in America. “But from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.” In a nation where 5 percent of senators are doing the jobs their fathers did, and 40 percent of the people have lived with only one or two families – Bush and Clinton – in the White House, it’s time for an extreme makeover.
True, over the past couple of months people have had the chance to vote and, among Democrats, have been doing so in record numbers. In South Carolina, Barack Obama received more votes than the entire Democratic field in 2004. But while Democrats have become energized by the elections, the party leaders have become enervated by democracy.
The notion that this race might be settled democratically increasingly appears more a question of pragmatism than a point of principle. If the primaries are not sufficiently decisive, it seems that the nomination will be brokered by the “elders.” Superdelegates slowly are ceding their authority to a handful of super-duper delegates. Al Gore and former Senate majority leader George Mitchell are the two “elder statesmen” most often touted with sufficient standing to fix whatever democracy might happen to break.
So after all the brouhaha about this being a historic election that has drawn the young and disaffected into the process and broken the mold in terms of race and gender, the outcome may now be determined in a more feudal manner. Old white guys ruling on what’s best for the family.
Democrats simply cannot win with a candidate who has no democratic legitimacy.
The trouble with this Democratic aristocracy, like all aristocracies, is that it is woefully out of touch with the demands of those for whom it purports to speak.
In this election cycle endorsements do not seem to have made the slightest difference. Obama bagged support from Massachusetts senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick, only to lose the state by 15 percent. Conversely, Maxine Waters, from California’s 35th District, supported Hillary Clinton, but 59 percent of her constituents went for Obama.
This doesn’t mean that these people are entirely without influence or power; simply that when it comes to taking advice about how to vote, most voters don’t turn to the Democratic Party elite. America’s political class has neither the credibility nor the clout to pull it off. Indeed, if anything, the pull is going in the other direction. Several black congressmen who already have endorsed Clinton are feeling the heat back home and from colleagues. Now that Obama’s candidacy is clearly viable, they fear going down in history as having blocked a black president and are openly discussing shifting their superdelegate vote.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the rules.
Any electoral process in the Western world where you still don’t know who’s won two weeks after the polls are closed clearly does not work. At the time of this writing, according to CNN, 6 percent of California’s pledged delegates still had not been allocated. So long as these are the rules, of course, everyone just has to deal with them. But the longer this race goes on, the more it seems as though the real function of the primaries is for the candidates to present themselves and win by acclaim. The actual elections appear to have been devised as an afterthought.
But in a race where the delegate count actually matters, the only way to resolve it is a Sopranos-style sit-down, where the heavies divvy up the spoils. If it comes to this, the Democrats could find themselves snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
As we approach this endgame, each side is trying any number of moves, from reviving Michigan and Florida to flipping superdelegates and pledged delegates. But ultimately the plan is to beat the Republicans in November. Democrats simply cannot do that with a candidate who has no democratic legitimacy. The only way you get that is by giving the nomination to the candidate who wins the most delegates.
Polls consistently show that most Democrats are divided evenly but not bitterly. They would be happy with either candidate. That will no longer be the case if the victor emerges from Denver in August with the same level of credibility as George W. Bush did from Florida in 2000.
A debacle of that magnitude would gift-wrap the presidency for the Republicans. After all, if Democratic voters didn’t choose their candidate, why should the country at large? This is one of those rare moments when the progressive principle makes electoral sense. If democracy does not prevail in August, then the Democrats will not prevail in November.