My very politically astute mother urged me not to write this article, deriding it as mere ‘common wisdom’ and perhaps beneath the high quality of punditry which I aspire to maintain. But I’m afraid the thought keeps nagging at me and I can’t resist, even if I’m stating something which may seem a bit facile and even obvious to some.
The thought occurred to me looking at the results from Super Tuesday and has been reinforced in the week since then — and with the outcome of subsequent primaries. The dynamic of this primary election for the Democrats seems inexorable. It’s like watching a trainwreck in slow motion, knowing that disaster is coming but also knowing that there’s nothing which can be done to sway the juggernauts from their track towards destruction.
In the aftermath of the Bush administration and with the hostility which so many on the right feel towards John McCain, it would seem obvious that any reasonable candidate nominated by the Democrats would have a clear path to an easy victory and probably two terms in the White House. Something truly disastrous would have to take place to negate that obvious outcome. The interesting thing is that as the primary is shaping up, disaster seems not only likely, but inevitable.
The root of the problem is the practice of the Democratic Party of giving a huge number of party luminaries positions as ‘superdelegates’ with a vote in the outcome of the primary at the convention. Almost a fifth of their total delegates are picked this way, chosen by the party rather than by the people. This creates the possibility for the catastrophic scenario we now see unfolding.
In primary after primary we see Barack Obama winning by a small margin and gradually advancing his delegate count ahead of Hillary Clinton’s. As it stands right now Obama has a lead of fewer than 100 voted delegates, a margin which will likely widen but probably never to more than 300 delegates out of a total which will eventually be around 2000. Clinton leads substantially in support from superdelegates, and with about 400 of them as yet unpledged, many of those are likely to go to her, preferring someone who is more predictable and more of a party insider. Clinton is also already campaigning to have the punishment which banned Florida’s delegates lifted or to have that primary revoted, bringing her another nice chunk of additional delegates.
So at the Democratic convention we’re quite likely to see Obama with a majority of the delegates voted on by the public in primaries and caucuses, going into the convention looking like a winner, and ultimately not getting the nomination after a bitter floor fight in which superdelegates and reinstated Florida delegates give the nomination to Clinton instead.
The Democrats will face a primary whose outcome after the convention looks disturbingly like the 2000 election between Gore and Bush where the system stole the election away from the person who appeared to be the peoples’ choice. It’s an ugly scenario, which might well tear the party apart, with outraged Obama supporters refusing to vote for Clinton and just not voting or even going over to John McCain. Even more than with angry Democrats, it will outrage independents by reminding them that the Democrats are more about empowering the establishment than about real change. They already don’t like Clinton, and if she gets nominated out of this kind of controversial scenario they won’t hesitate to vote Republican.
Obviously, party leaders are staring at the numbers from each primary in a sick fascination, trying to figure out how to avert the outcome, but the potential solutions are less than inspiring.
One solution might be to combine Clinton and Obama into a ‘super ticket’. This is an appealing idea, but for it to work you’d have to get one of the two very proud and successful candidates who think they are winning the primary to concede they are subdominant. Clinton is almost certainly constitutionally incapable of yielding to Obama and accepting the Vice Presidential slot. Obama could probably accept such a deal, with a promise of the nomination in 2016. He’s young and could stand the wait. The problem is that his fans aren’t going to be so accommodating. They’re going to see it as a victory for the establishment and be repelled by the image of Obama as a virtual “house nigger” for the Clinton machine. Hillary + Obama might well be weaker than either of them alone.
Another option might be a true brokered convention. Throw out all of the caucus and primary results and start over again at the convention. This scenario would work best with a third option available. It would be a chance to bring in an entirely different candidate and shove all of the controversy aside. For it to work, the candidate would have to be of such high stature that no one could complain without looking like a traitor to the party. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of living Democrats with the stature to pull this off, unless they discover that the tabloids are right and that JFK is secretly still alive. That’s unlikely to happen, so the best they have is probably Al Gore. Some people would find that appealing, but is he charismatic enough to unite a fractured party? It would also help if he wasn’t so quintessentially white and male.
The last and perhaps the most obvious solution is for the party to slap Hillary Clinton down so hard she bounces. The Democrats may get lucky and see the rest of the primaries follow the pattern of Maryland where Obama wins so overwhelmingly that Clinton gets left in the dust. If there’s any ambiguity about it, Clinton is not the type to go away with quiet dignity because she thinks the presidency has been reserved for her. If it comes to that kind of contest, party chairman Howard Dean will have to step in and negotiate with the superdelegates and convince most of them to switch from Clinton to Obama for the good of the party, so that Obama would end up with a decisive victory. Clinton would probably have to at least be offered a prestige payoff, like being Secretary of State or perhaps an even more powerful position like Majority Leader. Even with that she’s going to be furious and out for revenge, which she can probably exact slowly and painfully from her position in the Senate, especially as Majority Leader, and her loyal followers will be right behind her. They might well be cutting Obama’s legs out from under him to get him the uncontested nomination.
Any way you look at it, the situation for the Democrats is much more precarious than you would expect, given the disunified and discredited state of the Republican Party. The irony of McCain’s primary victory over all the objections of the far-right, is that he is the one candidate most capable of reaching across party lines and offering a welcoming hand to Democrats and independents who feel betrayed by the Democratic Party. Unless the Democrats come up with some sort of miracle they’re heading towards a smash-up from which they may not be able to recover.
Can you say “President John McCain”? Get used to it.