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Democrats see a train wreck coming

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February 26, 2008

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)

7 Responses to Democrats see a train wreck coming

  1. keith

    February 26, 2008 at 8:18 am

    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.

    ….and the Democrats SHOULD be feeling a “strong undercurrent of fear” if their little beauty contest between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton drags on for very much longer. The policy differences between the two are minuscule, so it’s really down to personalities.

    I’m old enough to well remember all the hot air and chicanery that used to take place at those summertime political conventions where several ballots were needed in order to select a nominee. In those days, the “smoke filled rooms” had a lot more to do with selecting a candidate than primary voters did.

    But, those days are long gone, and the Republicans (or, more specifically, Mr. McCain) are already starting to campaign for the general election. The Democrats run the risk of a repeat of Mr. Guliani’s debacle if they wait to much longer to engage Mr. McCain on the issues. They also run the risk of blowing the absolute best chance they’ve had in decades (thanks largely to the dismal Presidency of George W. Bush) to take the Congress back from the far-right Republicans.

    My hunch is that an Al Gore (or someone with similar stature within the Democratic Party) will convene a “high commission” of some sort after the Texas and Ohio primaries if there is no clear (or emerging) winner there to look for ways to select a nominee. However, if it turns out that they suggest Mrs. Clinton is the candidate to step aside, I’m not sure she (or Bill nor their supporters) would go quietly. The Democrats really ARE caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”.

    Unfortunately, this dilemma is largely of their own doing. Unlike the Rebublican’s “winner take all” strategy in most states, the Democrats have actually created this monster by awarding proportional delegates in their primaries. And they have a far greater number of “superdelegates” than the Republicans do as well. By design, the Republican approach forces candidates that don’t make the grade to drop out early when the math shows they have absolutely no chance of winning. Obviously, someone now needs to pass that bit of information on to Mr. Huckabee.

    I’ve made the point in previous posts that the political parties in the United States might want to go back to a Canadian-like system for our national elections. That’s because, just like it was in our country for many, many years, in Canada there ARE no “primaries”. After their Parliament is dissolved, each political party (there are currently four major ones) internally pick the candidates they plan to run in each political district (called “ridings”).

    Additionally, and from time to time, each party in Canada also convenes a national convention where they pick a national party leader. The person they pick for that job then serves in that post from that day forward, either as the Prime Minister (if their party already has the most seats in Parliament), or as the leader of one of the “loyal opposition” parties.

    However, when Parliament is dissolved (and it can be dissolved for any number of reasons, mostly having to do with “no confidence” motions) and after just a month or so of campaigning, whichever party wins the most seats in Parliament (and assuming their leader has also been elected (or re-elected) to their own seat in their home riding) that person then becomes the new Prime Minister. And, it’s over.

    The Canadian system for picking their government is simple and quick (if admittedly a bit less “representative”) compared to ours. But, what’s REALLY nice about the Canadian approach is that Canadians also aren’t subjected to years and years of nearly nonstop campaign foolishness, not to mention being bombarded with hour upon hour of television and other political advertising as well as “get out the vote” phone calls at all hours in the weeks and months leading up to our primaries.

    By now, people in the USA who have been even halfway paying attention to this election have known for years who the candidates are, what they stand for, and what the issues are. So, in my mind, dragging the whole thing out any longer than it already has been serves absolutely no useful purpose, whatsoever (other than to make a bunch of largely corrupt media conglomerates even richer).

    Clearly, the Democrats need to at least ADDRESS the issue of bringing an end to their self-made electoral foolishness or they risk losing the whole shebang to the Republicans.

  2. old_curmudgeon

    February 26, 2008 at 10:15 am

    The Canadian approach is very appealing. I have also advocated this type of arrangement instead of the constant barrage we’ve been subjected to year after year, non-stop.

    The Canadian system for picking their government is simple and quick (if admittedly a bit less “representative”) compared to ours.

    From a 5000 foot POV however, I think that statement is more wishful thinking than fact. It has been a very long time since we, the voter/citizen has been faithfully represented by those we’ve elected to perform the duty. When they (the elected) stand there and state they they are voting their conscience, or heart you know that they have ulterior motives for their stand (most likely how to get reelected).

    I cling to the pipe-dream that there will come a day when those we elect actually represent us – with no hedging and no reservations. But, well yeah, it is a pipe-dream and the smoke always dissipates.

  3. Elmo

    February 26, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Many people blame the 2000 debacle on the Nader factor. The claim is that Nader took enough votes from Gore to hand Florida to Bush. Whether or not those votes would have gone to Gore is debatable but if the Nader factor is valid, then who the Democratic candidate is will determine the strength of the Nader factor in 2008.

    In a McCain-Obama race, the Nader factor will be much smaller than in a McCain-Clinton race. Enough to make a difference.

  4. sherry

    February 26, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Interestingly, I had a conversation with a republican friend do of mine just this past weekend regarding this situation. My prediction is that McCain WILL win and win handily.
    Obama and Clinton both have passionate supporters. I back Hillary as the least evil, then McCain. Obama doesn’t even make the list. A lot of Obama supporters feel the same way about their candidate.
    Putting them both on the ticket won’t help either. If Hillary isn’t at the top of the ticket, McCain has my vote, or I may not even vote at all for the first time since I have been eligible to vote.
    I know Hal is disappointed in me for voting for the **** factor. Oh well
    Yep, no one can foul up an election quite like the democrats.

  5. Wayne K Dolik

    February 26, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    The reason Hillary Clinton will not win was written early on in the beginnings of her campaign. A good friend of mine was a Mike Dukakis County Chairman in a California County.

    Realizing that Dukakis had trouble connecting in the small states, my friend called Dukakis and said, “Mike you have to say something about the guns to these small states people”. Dukakis replied, “Those are just the small states”. My friend told me later, “That’s when I knew this guy was crazy”. The lesson learned is that when you run, you must appeal to all the People, and all the states. That is the American way.

    In hindsight Hillary Clinton failed to reach out. Barak Obama did reach out and is being repaid handsomely. Barak’s trip to Idaho told the West that he could be their President too. Just one of many instances Barak Obama reached out.

  6. spartacus

    February 26, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Michigan couldn’t possibly be counted in any way that would be justifiable since Hillary was the only name on the ballot. As for “a lot of Obama supporters” feeling that he is the lesser of two evils: where have you been? Obama supporters are nothing, if not passionate, about their candidate. Hillary’s supporters, however. tend to be less inspired. If Obama isn’t making your list, you simply haven’t spent any time listening to the man. Soundbites are not enough to convey who he is and the type of leader he will be; if John McCain could earn your vote over someone who has fresh ideas and is not is Bush kisser, then you have a problem and need to be much more open minded. Turn on your tv and watch one of his speeches, or even a couple. I guarantee you will find in him the kind of inspiration that I for one haven’t felt since RFK. Inspiration is what we need now, just as we needed it in the dark days of Vietnam. Instead, the right man was assasinated, and they elected the wrong one, tricky Dicky. This country hasn’t been the same since. We need a Barack Obama.

    The superdelegates are more than likely going to go with the person most likely to beat John McCain. Again, that’s Barack Obama. Right wingers have been preparing the campaign against Hillary since 2000. Carl Rove WANTS her to be the nominee: he’s even said so It’d be insane to let them have their fondest desire While they may not love McCain, they are UNITED IN THEIR HATE against Hillary Clinton. The superdelegates aren’t likely to risk losing the White House if Obama’s still showing he can trounce McCain. Republicans will have a much harder time running against him.

    The Democratic nominee WILL be Barack Obama, whoever puts him over the top.

  7. sherry

    February 26, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    I have little doubt Obama will be the nominee. That said, some Hillary supporters are HIGHLY passionate and I tend to be more pragmatic about my vote. Pretty speeches don’t do it for me.
    I attend church and I know how inspiring a minister can be. I can’t stand Obama’s speech making skills. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. Its the reason I left the church where I grew up.
    I go to a nice sedate, inspiring church now.
    |Obama sounds like he is a southern fundamentalist preacher.
    Personally, I believe him to be a snake oil salesman