By Jefferson Flanders

The struggle within the Democratic Party between Clinton centrists and left-of-center Obama “progressives” has shifted to the party’s inconsistent, contradictory, and—dare it be said—undemocratic presidential nominating process. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the bitter 2000 election, Democrats embraced the principles of “counting every vote” and “insuring election integrity,” but they have now discovered, to their dismay, that electoral fairness is easier to achieve in theory than in practice.

The debate over the role of the so-called superdelegates has highlighted internal tensions in the party. Superdelegates were created in the early 1980s as a way for greater participation by party elders; a more cynical view held that these delegates were meant to block fringe candidates advanced by the left wing of the party (vide: George McGovern). Since they are drawn from the ranks of elected officials and party stalwarts, in theory superdelegates should represent the interests of the Democratic Party writ large at the national convention.

Not surprisingly, Barack Obama’s supporters, including many vocal activists on the left, have rejected the idea of superdelegates exercising any independent judgment. Instead, they have insisted that the some 795 superdelegates should ratify the “will of the people” by awarding the nomination to Obama, the likely leader in the popular vote and pledged delegate count after the final primaries.

A flawed process

Yet the argument for crowning Obama by affirmation is less clear-cut than his adherents make it; his lead over Hillary Clinton is, in part, a reflection of a deeply flawed and inconsistent process. Obama has benefited from the exclusion of the Florida and Michigan primary results, and from proportional rules for the awarding of delegates.

Nor is it clear how the “will of the people” should be defined. For example, should senators who are superdelegates vote for the candidate with the largest national pledged delegate count, or for the winner of the popular vote in their state’s primary? Superdelegates John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy are Obama supporters, and yet Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly for Clinton; in Washington state, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are backing Clinton despite their state’s vote breaking for Obama.

And the Obama camp’s enthusiasm for “the will of the people” has been somewhat selective. Obama supporters successfully blocked any re-vote in Florida or Michigan, effectively disenfranchising million of voters, because they knew Clinton would likely prevail in any do-over of those primaries. Hardly an advertisement for electoral fairness.

The Democrats’ proportionality scheme for delegate selection has proved problematic, as well. By awarding pledged delegates based on a candidate’s proportional share of the vote, rather than by winner-take-all, the Democratic National Committee has ensured political gridlock: neither candidate will achieve the magic number of 2,024 delegates before the August convention without help from the superdelegates. Further, the application of proportionality has been inconsistent from state-to-state, with complicated allocation schemes in some precincts and congressional districts in places like Nevada and California.

Proportionality has also encouraged the practice of identity politics. When either of the Democratic candidates has trailed badly in a given state (say, Clinton in Mississippi, or Obama in Ohio), the end-game strategy has been to target specific ethnic and racial voting blocs—exacerbating divisions within the party—in the hopes of winning delegates based on proportional support.

Those undemocratic caucuses

State caucuses, perhaps the most undemocratic part of the process, have greatly benefited Obama and his motivated and well-organized activists (the now famous “latte liberals”). The caucuses have effectively disenfranchised many working class voters without the free time, or patience, to sit through a lengthy political meeting. Even worse, the caucuses operated without secret balloting, the foundation of any free election!

The Clinton campaign has also played electoral games. Clinton kept her name on the Michigan ballot when the other Democratic candidates withdrew, and she changed her position and called for the Florida primary results to be recognized after she won. Further, Clinton supporters have been reduced to arguing that Obama’s red state primary victories shouldn’t count as much as Clinton’s blue state strength in the Northeast, Midwest, and California.

Surveying this tangled mess, Will Rogers’ observation that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat seems apt. Ironically, the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton seems tailor-made for intervention by the superdelegates. More than half of registered Democrats will not have expressed their preference in the primaries/caucuses, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo has noted, and it seems reasonable to have a mechanism for their representation. As most superdelegates are elected officials, they are ultimately accountable to the voters, who could—in theory–unseat them in the next election cycle if they were perceived to have betrayed Democratic principles.

Yet, in the end the Democratic superdelegates are likely to take the path of least resistance and award the nomination to Obama. If Obama wins the trifecta of the most pledged delegates, the largest popular vote total, and the most number of states (a probable outcome), no matter how flawed the process may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Obama could be denied the top spot on the Democratic ticket.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue 

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