Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Visions of the Democratic Future

First of all, my congratulations to Barack Obama, who won such a convincing victory by inspiring so many people. And congratulations also to Hillary Clinton for a hard fought battle. Victory is always sweeter when you have a worthy opponent whom you respect and one who challenges you to give it your best. Hillary did that.

Right now the chattering classes are writing cautionary notes to this victory. As pundits do, they are trying to rain on our parade by offering sober warnings.

Ruth Marcus, in today's Washington Post offers this assessment of, what she calls, the "train wreck" of the Democratic nominating process, including both the proportionality of the delegate selection and the role of the super delegates:
The wonder, really, is that the nomination train wreck confronting the Democratic Party didn't happen years earlier.

The stage was set for the current stalemate over five marathon days of negotiations in June 1988. In the fifth-floor conference room of a Washington law firm, representatives of Michael Dukakis, the party's nominee, and Jesse Jackson, his unsuccessful challenger, hashed out a new set of delegate selection rules.

Jackson felt aggrieved that he had not amassed as many delegates as his popular vote total would have suggested. In the 1984 primary campaign, for instance, Jackson won 19 percent of the popular vote but received just 10 percent of the delegates. So Jackson's rules guru, Harold M. Ickes, insisted on adopting proportional representation rules that would award insurgent candidates a bigger share of delegates in future contests.
She then goes on to describe the function of the super delegates, the proportionality of the delegate spread and how all this, hashed out back in 1980s, to bring more democracy to the process, can actually do the opposite.

One irony in the article is that Jackson's representative, who fought for the proportionality, was then young liberal insurgent Harold Ickes, who is now one of the Clinton's consumate insiders. How things change!

Meanwhile, the role of the super delegates was created as a counterweight to ensure that, while the party was fair to the underdog candidate, it didn't sacrifice the interests of the insiders or the mainstream voters.

Both the rules for granting proportionality and the role of the super delegates could, according to Marcus, tear the Democratic Party apart this year if there is no clear cut winner coming out of the primaries.

Harold Myerson seconds the opinion that the Democrats could face a wrenchingly divided convention with this piece, where he says the following:
In popular memory, Chicago '68 evokes images of police and demonstrators clashing -- and cops swinging nightsticks at anyone who chanced by -- in Grant Park and the old Conrad Hilton Hotel, while the Democratic National Convention proceeded apace. But take it from someone who was there (I was an 18-year-old working for Eugene McCarthy's campaign): The rage inside the convention hall was every bit as great as the anger without.

It wasn't just the divisions over the Vietnam War and the sense among the antiwar delegates that Robert Kennedy's assassination had stolen their chance to end the war and transform their party. The clash was more elemental. Just as the yippies and the police fighting on the streets seemed to come from two different Americas, so the party regulars (some representing superannuated machines that had been around since the 1920s) and the earnest young reformers (some representing raggedy, born-yesterday bands of college activists and inner-city agitators) plainly came to loathe each other. I remember standing in the lobby of the Hilton the morning after the convention ended, a bedraggled kid who several hours earlier had been rousted out of the McCarthy junior-staff floor (the 15th, I think), along with the entirety of the McCarthy junior staff, by stick-swinging cops who'd run out of people to club on the street, and telling this sad tale to a delegate, a crew-cut chamber of commerce type who heard me out, looked me over, uttered one word -- "Good!" -- and stalked away.

Did I mention that the Democrats lost that year?
What's striking is that both Marcus and Myerson are assuming a badly divided Democratic Party heading into the convention without a clear cut winner.

There is no evidence that this will happen, of course. It's sheer speculation, which they would admit themselves if really pressed. Granted, it's based on certain educated, historic assumptions, but it is a guess nonetheless.

Here's my best guess, as somebody who was witness to much the same history that they watched.

I think that Hillary will still win a few states, such as Texas, and will gather some more delegates. But the momentum - what was called during the eighties, "the Big Mo" - is with Barack Obama. While Clinton will pick up Texas, Obama is expected to win Wisconsin and should sail on that momentum to a victory in Ohio.

The momentum is indeed with him and it's gathering speed, much like a snowball rolling down a mountain, which turns the mere snowball into an avalanche.

By the time he gets to the convention in Denver, Obama will have the delegates he needs to win. And the super delegates will not vote counter to the popular vote or the consensus in their own states because they've got to go back and face those people.

I am pragmatic enough to never entirely dismiss the possibility that the Democrats could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But I don't see that happening this time.

Meanwhile, I don't think we'll sail to victory in November without hard work.

The conservative base of the Republican party is currently dispirited. But they will unite around McCain. Republicans always do. We've been waiting for years for the so-called "conservative crackup." If it hasn't happened yet, it ain't going to. They've got far more discipline than that, and we take them for granted at our peril.

Having said that, their base is definitely not enthusiastic. What that means is that while they will support McCain and will get out and vote for him, the fire won't be there in their bellies. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm to go out day after day to knock on doors, staff phone banks, stuff envelopes and talk up your candidate to your neighbors.

The Republicans will get out and do all those things, as they always have (as we all always do). But there will be a little less sparkle in their eyes. A bit less of a glow to their cheeks. There will be a few phone calls too little. A door or two unknocked when their feet start to hurt. In other words, they will make the perfunctory effort but not give it their all.

That's what will make the difference for our candidate. In the end, the Democrats will heal their differences and our enthusiasm will be palpable. They will go through the motions and wait and hope for next time and for a better candidate. We will feel we have our best candidate. And that's the difference that will show come November.

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