Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Clinton, Obama, and the Audacity of Rules

The good news for Barack Obama is that only four states cast primary ballots yesterday and that one of them, Vermont, is populated by latte-drinking Prius drivers who eat Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and know their Merlots from their Cabernets. The bad news is that after the very first week of negative press he has ever endured in his life, Obama lost decisively to Hillary Clinton in the non tie-dyed states of Rhode Island and Ohio, and suffered an upset defeat in Texas. By the time it was over, Senator Clinton had not only broken through her colleague's aura of invincibility, she had also introduced a new phrase to the 2008 political lexicon: buyer's remorse.

Obama, of course, is not the first frontrunner to face a backlash from voters in the later primary states. It happened on both the Republican (Ford vs. Reagan) and Democratic (Carter vs. Jerry Brown) sides in 1976. But it really hasn't occurred since then, and thirty years is a long time ago, back when we wore bell-bottoms and listened to the Captain and Tennille, so perhaps it's not a comparison that the Senator would wish to invoke. Regardless, the next few days will be critical for Obama as the country watches him climb off the canvas for the first time in the campaign. It's 3:00 a.m. and the phone is ringing, Senator. Or maybe it's just that punch Hillary landed Tuesday evening. Either way, what Obama does next could prove decisive.

If he is smart—and he obviously is—he will admit defeat, fight back against the charges and criticisms he has faced in recent days, and commit himself to the hard work that awaits as the campaign meanders its way to what looks to be an unexpectedly important April showdown in Pennsylvania. If he is unwise, Obama will join his spin doctors and blogosphere devotees behind the barricade of his formidable delegate lead. A candidate committed to running out the clock is not an attractive candidate. Moreover, the better Clinton does in the next month, assuming she does better, the more Obama's appeal to the delegate count begins to sound like a whiny technicality.

First, the idea that the elected delegates are somehow representative of the people's will is preposterous. The vote-to-delegate translation is so crude that Obama, after losing by roughly six percent in the Nevada caucuses, actually picked up one more delegate than did Clinton. He did more or less the same thing in New Hampshire, while she pulled off a similarly tainted feat in Alabama. The idea that elected delegates mirror the popular will is equivalent to the notion that George W. Bush's electoral vote victory in 2000 legitimately negated Al Gore's clear plurality in actual ballots cast. It's a defensible argument, I suppose, but I doubt there were many Obama supporters making it seven years ago.

Second, the Super Delegates, whether anyone likes it or not, do not serve as potted plants. The Obama camp has done a fine job of persuading the pundit class that these elected officeholders and party officials have no right to an independent voice, but that's not what the rules say. In fact, the Clinton campaign needs to do a better job of countering this specious argument, and particularly of pointing out the hypocrisy of Obama fiercely enforcing the party rules that keep Florida's elected delegates from being counted, while at the same time complaining that the choices of Super Delegates are somehow unfair.

Obama, of course, was only in middle school when the Democrats, reeling from George McGovern's 49-state trouncing at the hands of Richard Nixon, decided to incorporate Super Delegates into the mix. The expressly stated purpose for seating these additional participants, unchosen by primaries or caucuses, was to act as a check against candidates with fervent, ideologically charged supporters who might otherwise win the nomination only to be humiliated by the Republicans in November. Clearly, Barack Obama is not, in that respect, another George McGovern, at least not yet (actually McGovern was never that bad, either; no Democrat would have beaten Nixon in 1972). But if his campaign somehow implodes over the next several weeks, or if party leaders simply feel that Obama has become a fatally weakened candidate, then not only should they effectively veto his nomination, but everyone else (including the media) should understand that this is what they are supposed to do.

Right now, the national popular vote, including Florida but not Michigan, is almost even between Clinton and Obama, with the latter holding on to a 50.6% share. Given that, it is obvious that any argument that relies on the lopsided delegate count is, by definition, anti-democratic. I can tolerate anti-democratic arguments—I'm a bit of a James Madison fan—but I expect honesty from the people who are proposing them. By all rights, if the voice of the people reigns supreme, Hillary Clinton ought to have exactly 49.4 of the delegates elected to date.

Part of the reason she does not, of course, is that Obama has used the various caucuses around the country to translate low voter turnout into huge delegate bounties in states like Colorado and Minnesota. Again, I'm all for the proposition that rules are rules, so long as we are consistent. But at the very least, Obama's supporters ought to admit that their man enjoys a wealth of delegates from the caucus states that he simply would never have earned had only primary elections taken place. So much for vox populi, vox dei.

In the meantime, those who worry—or, in the case of the pundit class, pretend to worry—about the damage this extended battle is doing to the party should stop talking about Hillary Clinton and her supporters. No rhetoric coming out of the Clinton campaign can match the apoplectic rage being loosed in the liberal blogosphere right now, especially now that their champion, Senator Obama, missed out on his scheduled March 4 coronation.

"Tonight," says recommended Daily Kos diarist DJ ProFusion, "I grieve for my country." So begins a particularly untethered screed from someone who evidently regards Ohioans and Rhode Islanders as dupes or worse:

"There is still too much racism for honesty to win. Too many would rather go backwards than forwards. Too many people still believe it is better to vote for a liar and a cheat than a half-black man. This country is still not ready to move into the 21st Century. Hope may have to wait."

Someone yclept Granny Doc, with a diary also voted onto the must-see list by the Kos faithful, chimes in with this helpful nugget:

"The Clinton's [sic] sense of entittlement [sic] that is allowing her to continue her Presidential campaign in the face of all of the evidence that she can not win without destroying the leader in this cycle has earned my eternal enmity [sic]…I have just joined the ranks of Clinton haters."

Well, all right then.

The Democratic presidential campaign has just moved into a new stage, and both sides need to understand that politics, even at the intramural level, is not about hugs and lollipops. It is about victory and defeat. And it's also about not losing sight of the bigger picture, which is sending John McCain back to the Senate in November.

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