The Democrats’ undemocratic superdelegates

February 22, 2008

Just because they call themselves the Democratic Party doesn't mean they are.

UNTIL THIS year, very few people had even heard the term "superdelegate," much less knew what or who they were. But if the current closeness of the Democratic race for the presidential nomination continues, the superdelegates, rather than voters, could end up anointing Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee.

If this happens, it will be another proof that just because an organization has "democratic" in its name, it doesn't mean it functions according to the barest concepts of democracy.

The "superdelegates" are 796 Democrats officeholders (including all Democratic governors and members of Congress), Democratic National Committee members, union officials, lower-level party apparatchiks and miscellaneous members of the Democratic infrastructure (fundraisers, consultants, pollsters and the like) who, collectively, hold one out of five delegate seats at the Democratic national convention.

At the party convention, these delegates will cast votes alongside the delegates whose support the candidates won through competing in the party's caucuses and primaries throughout the early months of this year.

To many, a "nightmare scenario" would unfold if one candidate arrives at the convention with a majority of pledged delegates, only to have the nomination handed to the other by a vote of the superdelegates.

The message would be lost on no one, as Ari Emanuel, the brother of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) wrote on the Huffington Post Web site:

The superdelegates, my brother included, have not been elected by anybody to name the nominee. They've either been appointed by the Party or, as in my brother's case, have automatically inherited the role simply because they are elected officials. This isn't the place to debate the entire history of superdelegates. Suffice it to say, however, they were created by the party machine decades ago for the express purpose of giving party insiders the ability to thwart the popular will.

The creation of the superdelegates was part of the Democratic Party machine's backlash against an opening up of the party in the 1960s.

The Democrats experienced a fiasco at their convention in Chicago in 1968, when the party bosses, led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the presidential candidate, despite Humphrey having failed to compete in a single party primary.

To appease disgruntled liberals, the party appointed a commission, led by then-Sen. George McGovern and Rep. Donald Fraser, to draw up rules for selecting convention delegates that enforced affirmative action and required that delegates be chosen in primaries or caucuses. Under those rules, the next two Democratic conventions chose one candidate (McGovern) who lost in an historic landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972 and another (Jimmy Carter) who came to Washington as an "outsider."

In 1972, much of the party establishment refused to support McGovern on the grounds that he was too liberal. And much of Carter's weak presidency was consumed with squabbles between the White House and the Democratic insiders in Congress.

Thus, once Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the party bosses struck back with new rules intended to place themselves more fully at the center of the process of selecting a presidential nominee. Party leaders realized they couldn't go back to the days when all important matters were decided "smoke-filled backrooms"--so they went only part of the way back, arriving at the superdelegate system.

As a Wall Street Journal article summarized: "The idea was to encourage the party's officeholders to attend the convention and provide a firewall in case someone unelectable--say, a Huey Long populist or Norman Thomas socialist--swept the primaries, says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who helped write the rules."

SO GIVEN all this, what can we expect as the primary season winds down?

Many scenarios can be envisioned, and neither the Clinton nor the Obama camp is about to throw in the towel at this point. In fact, Clinton seems to be banking on keeping the pledged delegate count close enough to win the nomination at the Denver convention in August with the help of the superdelegates.

But Clinton--who has positioned herself as the more experienced and savvy candidate, the kind that would supposedly appeal to superdelegates--may have a surprise waiting for her in Denver.

As the Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier reported, "Top Democrats, including some inside Hillary Clinton's campaign, say many party leaders--the so-called superdelegates--won't hesitate to ditch the former New York senator for Barack Obama if her political problems persist. Their loyalty to [Bill and Hillary Clinton] is built on shaky ground."

And Obama is far from a beginner when it comes to the game of appealing for establishment support. A Center for Responsive Politics study showed that Obama's campaign committees gave nearly $700,000 to various Democratic politicians--superdelegates all--in the last two election cycles, compared to only $200,000 from Clinton.

Superdelegates may claim to make their decision according to the best interests of the party or the nation, but let's not forget that money usually speaks louder than words in U.S. politics.

In the end, the superdelegates will choose the candidate who they think will be most likely to win in November--and thereby deliver on any Cabinet posts, ambassadorships or consulting contracts that they might have promised to win superdelegate support.

The Clinton camp could also press the Democrats to reverse their decision to disqualify delegates selected in the Florida and Michigan primaries--which were held earlier than the party rules allowed--where Clinton won overwhelmingly.

In this event, expect a lot of Clinton-stirred protest against voter "disenfranchisement" that would result from the two state delegations not being seated. While this is certainly a legitimate point, it should be recalled that senior Clinton adviser Harold Ickes voted with the rest of the party to disqualify Florida's delegates--before he knew that seating them might help his candidate in an unexpectedly close race.

In the disgraceful Bush v. Gore decision that decided the 2000 presidential election, we learned from the U.S. Supreme Court that voters have no right guaranteed in the Constitution to choose the president. In 2008, we may find out that Democratic voters have no right to choose their party's nominee.

So much for civics-book democracy. Let's leave the last word to political scientist and pundit Larry Sabato--one of the most reliable purveyors of conventional wisdom there is--speaking about the Clinton-Obama race to the Wall Street Journal: "Sometimes, you can have an excess of democracy, and that's what we've got now."

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