Monday, February 18, 2008

Super Delegates and Fairness

All this discussion of Democratic Super Delegates begins to approach absurdity. Most annoying is the question of fairness. Is it fair, ask about a million journalists per hour, that after all the voting and caucusing, the Super Delegates may decide who wins the nomination?

First, that is an unbelievably stupid question. Of course it’s fair. The rules were written well in advance, all the candidates understood those rules, and nothing has changed in the interim. Is it fair that one basketball team can make fewer shots than another and still win the game because more of their baskets came from beyond the three-point line? Yes, obviously it is since that’s what the rule book prescribes.

There are three problems here that all intersect to create the current controversy. First, the news media have done a characteristically poor job of explaining how the Democratic nomination system works. By neglecting to discuss the role of Super Delegates until the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama neared the two-month mark essentially in a dead heat, the appearance is left that someone is trying to reverse the will of the voters rather than just following the pre-arranged playbook.

Second, the pundit class, which has never much cared for Senator Clinton, is framing this issue in the most explosive manner possible. Ah, those sleazy Clintons, once again trying to steal something they haven’t earned, always ready to bend the rules to win on a technicality. And if that’s not good enough, the cable TV yakkers can always whisper that the nomination of an African American presidential candidate might be denied by a small army of mostly white politicians and party officials. In a smoke filled room! Under cover of night! With the lights off!

Finally, there seems to be little doubt that the Obama campaign itself has begun, in mostly subtle ways, to push the story line that the Super Delegates represent a potentially unfair advantage for their opponent. Their goal, of course, is to try to goad as many of the Supermen and Women as possible into reneging on their previous endorsements of Hillary Clinton. This is smart politics in the short term, though the potential long term wisdom of challenging the integrity of the nomination process is rather less obvious.

If the candidate of Change finds himself ultimately undone by a few hundred agents of the status quo, the system will, in fact, be working exactly as it was intended to. The Democrats faced another self-described agent of change 36 years ago in the person of George McGovern, whose victories in the primaries thwarted the will of party leaders who preferred a safer candidate to battle incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern’s disastrous 49-state defeat led the Dems to create the role Super Delegates to add ballast to the party’s nomination process. These delegates were, therefore, precisely empowered to be skeptics of change, protectors against popular uprisings that might result in ruinous November consequences.

Thus, if the Super Delegates determine that Barack Obama will not hold up to the full Republican assault planned for the fall campaign, they are, in fact, doing their job as originally mandated. If they decide that Hillary Clinton would make a stronger nominee, then they should, based on their assigned role in the process, support Clinton regardless of the outcome of the primaries and caucuses. If Super Delegates existed simply to rubber stamp the people’s choice (and by “people” here, we mean the relatively small and unrepresentative portion of the electorate that participates in primaries and caucuses), they would have no purpose. They are supposed to be the protectors of the party’s—rather than any single candidate’s—interests.

As a practical matter, however, the entire discussion of Super Delegates is both overblown and weeks premature. These are people, after all, who care about their own positions, either elected or appointed, and will do what is both in their party’s best interests and in their own. Should Barack Obama emerge from the final primary election with any kind of significant lead in the delegate count over Hillary Clinton, the Super Delegates, or at least enough of them, will almost certainly ratify the choice of the people. At that point, Obama would obviously have been tested in a way that McGovern never was. He would thus be a strong and viable presidential candidate.

Indeed, at this point, the only way the delegate count will be close this summer is if Clinton stages a strong comeback, winning at least Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania. If she can do this, it will mean she has won nearly every large, vote rich state except Obama’s own Illinois. At that point, even if she barely trails in the race for delegates, it might indeed be wise for the Super Delegates to decide that she is the stronger of the two contenders and vote accordingly. Senator Obama’s caucus wins have been impressive, as have his victories in a series of Red States, but caucuses mean very little in terms of electability and the battle for the White House is not going to hinge on the outcome of balloting in Alabama and Idaho.

The worst part about this debate, of course, is the fact that it puts the legitimacy of the entire Democratic nominating process in question. This, more than any single result, could be enormously destructive to the party and its chances of victory. The media will obviously not stand down on this issue. But the candidates and their handlers should do so immediately.

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