Remember the political teeth-gnashing eight years ago when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote for president only to lose to Republican George W. Bush in the Electoral College after weeks of disputed vote-counting in Florida and contradictory decisions by the Florida and U.S. supreme courts?
Many Democrats believed Bush stole the election and thwarted the popular will of voters. There were demands that the Electoral College system be abolished in favor of a binding popular vote. In several states, including California, efforts were made to compel all electoral votes to be cast for the popular-vote winner.
Democrats are engaged in a similar political clash again, but this time it’s within the party as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama slug it out for the presidential nomination.
Though Obama leads in delegates, neither candidate is expected to reach the 2,025-delegate majority, and the eventual winner may be decided by the nearly 800 “superdelegates” — party leaders and elected officials — who are not bound to anyone. And that’s spurring an internal party debate that echoes both the 2000 Electoral College argument and the party upheavals of 40 years ago.
The riot-tinged 1968 Democratic convention pitted the party’s establishment against its anti-war left wing. With Lyndon Johnson ceding the presidency and the left wing’s hero, Robert Kennedy, having been felled by an assassin’s bullet in California just a few weeks before, the establishment delivered the nomination to a hapless Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon later that year, Democrats instituted a massive “reform” that reoriented the nomination process to primaries. Then-Sen. George McGovern headed the commission that promulgated the new rules and used them to win the presidential nomination in 1972, only to repeat Humphrey’s loss to Nixon.
Jimmy Carter worked the primaries to capture the nomination in 1976 and won the White House, but lost it to Ronald Reagan four years later. This created another internal backlash and new procedures that retreated from the democracy of the primaries and established a special class of delegates who, it was said, would protect the party from nominating an unelectable figure.
Over the last couple of decades, the Democrats’ nominees have emerged early enough to preclude the superdelegates from playing a role. But this year they might be decisive, and so far appear to be leaning in favor of Clinton, who was the presumptive candidate before Obama caught fire — ironically enough — with the party’s anti-war left wing, the spiritual heirs to the 1968 convention’s outsiders.
California’s superdelegates — especially its Democratic members of Congress — are caught up in the rising angst. Six of the 15 congressional members who have endorsed Clinton saw their districts vote for Obama on Feb. 5, while five of the seven who have endorsed Obama have voters who favored Clinton.
There’s a strong undercurrent of fear developing among Democrats that a protracted and increasingly bitter battle for the nomination would so alienate independents and other swing voters that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, would keep the White House in Republican hands.
What if the nomination hinged on seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, whose primaries violated party rules governing timing? Clinton won both disputed primaries and could go to court demanding that her delegates be recognized. What if the superdelegates tilted the nomination to someone who lost in the popular voting of the primaries — especially if the Florida and Michigan delegates were in dispute?
It may all come to nothing. But at the moment, the prospect of a political train wreck is looming large.
(Contact Dan Walters at dwalters(at)sacbee.com)