March 28, 2008

Superdelegates Can Rock the Vote

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

The instant it was apparent that neither fierce Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would get the 2025 delegate votes needed for the Democratic nomination, the spotlight fell heavily on the party’s 800 super delegates.

The super delegates are congresspersons, governors, party regulars, and honored party elders such as Jimmy Carter. They are the hard-nosed political professionals not beholden to any faction, constituency, or even candidate. They’re bound only by their political conscience and their sense of duty to do what’s in the best interests of the party, and that’s back a candidate who can win, even if it goes against the wishes of the delegates. They are considered mostly political amateurs.

But things in politics aren’t that simple or noble. The war for the super delegates is riddled with insider trading, backroom maneuvering, and the taint of old loyalties, connections and friendships. This supposedly favors Clinton who, along with hubby Bill, are the ultimate Democratic Party insiders.

This was true for a time. In mid-February, Clinton had a nearly 100-vote lead over Obama among super delegates. The Obama camp screamed foul.

The Clinton lock, they shouted, smacked of a nomination that was a done deal no matter how many delegates Obama won in the primaries and caucuses. The Obama camp’s shout of fix prompted House majority leader Nancy Pelosi to publicly and sternly warn the super delegates they risked a convention backlash if they went against the wishes of the majority of the delegates.

This would roll back years of hard work and effort by the Democrats to rid the nomination process of bossism and backroom dealing. This doomed the party in 1968, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley handpicked Hubert Humphrey over insurgent Eugene McCarthy, and in 1984 when party regulars backed Walter Mondale over insurgent Gary Hart. McCarthy and Hart had scored big in the primaries, but got little support from the super delegates.

A nervous Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean swore that he’d do everything to prevent a contrarian super delegate vote from wrecking the convention. Dean didn’t spell out what those steps would be, but presumably that meant lots of arm twisting behind the scenes to insure that the super delegates abide by the will of the majority of delegates. Dean’s fear of a brokered convention was based on pragmatism and history, bad history that is. A brokered convention has in the past translated out to a divided party and that’s a sure prescription for a Democratic defeat. This happened in 1968, 1972 and 1980 when the conventions were brokered. The Democrats lost all three elections.

Unfortunately the early warning sign is that the divisions that have virtually split the delegates down the middle into pro Clinton and pro Obama sides have also split the 800 super delegates. Georgia Congressman John Lewis and South Carolina Congressman James E. Clyburn are two examples.

Initially, Lewis seemed a lock for Clinton. It was thought that Clyburn leaned toward Clinton. But Lewis heard the loud grumbles, jeers, and protests from his mostly black constituents in his district who voted en masse for Obama in the primary. They railed that he was thwarting their will by backing Clinton. He publicly announced that he was switching to Obama. Clyburn, infuriated by the insulting race-tinged remarks that Bill Clinton supposedly made about Jesse Jackson, publicly threatened to back Obama. Though he later partially recanted and said he would remain neutral, their flip-flop underscored the wishy-washiness of super delegates.

Following Obama’s sweep of a dozen primaries and caucuses in January and February, more super delegates read the political tea leaves and like Lewis jumped ship to Obama. Clinton’s gargantuan bulge over Obama in the number of super delegates shrunk.

This was good news for Obama, bad news for Clinton, and worse news for the Democrats. If the super delegates remain deeply divided between Obama and Clinton, it means that the party is back to square one with neither Clinton nor Obama having a clear edge. Dean’s terror of a raucous, rancorous, balkanized convention is a real possibility. That would ignite an orgy of back door, side aisle arm-twisting, browbeating, favor calling, and attempts by Clinton and Obama to cash buy super delegates to line up with them.

The money spigot was already flowing. By the end of February the two camps had ladled out nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions to the super delegates. An even split among them between Clinton and Obama would force Democratic officials to broker a deal and the nomination. This is the very thing that the reforms that created the super delegates were supposed to eliminate.

The 2008 presidential election was supposed to be different, much different. This was the election that the Democrats seemingly couldn’t lose. Politics, though, is always full of intrigue, twists and perils. The contentious war between Clinton and Obama over the super delegates is another looming peril for the Democrats.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

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