Commentary Magazine


(Not So) Superdelegates

The new conventional wisdom about the Democratic race is that the superdelegates will pick the winner.  And this has a lot of Democrats–all Obama supporters, of course–very upset.  Donna Brazile, who managed Gore’s campaign in 2000, was quoted by ABC News today as saying that "If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party."  Chris Bowers, a liberal blogger, describes the prospect as a "complete disaster" that "shine[s] light on complicated bylaws, and the questionable democratic nature of the delegate selection process."  And Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, is calling on the party to reform the process so that "the people, not the party establishment, choose their candidate."

Quite why everyone is so upset is a mystery to me.  Brazile and her friends thought the system was perfectly fair in 2000, when it nominated their man.  And, more to the point, the superdelegate system is doing exactly what it was designed to do: defend the Democratic Party from Democratic voters.  The system has its origins in the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which is surely the least successful Democratic gathering since 1860.  In 1968, in addition to fighting the police and each other, the Party created what came to be known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which in turn recommended measures to open up and democratize the process of delegate selection.  Party leaders lost the ability to choose delegates in secret, and so control the nomination process, as they had in 1968, when they handed the prize to Hubert Humphrey.

The result of the ‘reforms’ was the nomination of McGovern himself in 1972, one of the worst-beaten candidates in US history, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history.  After 1980, the Party’s leaders lost patience and created the superdelegate system in an effort to moderate the impact of the earlier reforms.  In 1984, when Gary Hart challenged Walter Mondale, he won sixteen primaries and caucuses to Mondale’s ten, but almost all the superdelegates had pledged to support Mondale before the contest even began, and he took the nomination with their support.  And in both 1984 and 1988, the superdelegate system played a role in warding off the challenge of Jesse Jackson, though this had to be handled carefully.  As one Democratic leader put it at the time, "The real danger is if it looks like a politicians’ cabal to shortchange Jesse."

Well, it looks like it’s 1988 all over again.  With his wins over the weekend in Washington, Nebraska, and Louisiana, Obama now leads Clinton by 931 to 882 delegates, presuming the Convention does not seat the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida.  But including superdelegates who have endorsed a candidate, Clinton leads by 1106 to 1057, according to the survey at the 2008 Democratic Convention Watch.  It’s certainly possible that either Obama or Clinton will pull away, but given the share and share alike process by which Democratic delegates are awarded, it’s not going to be easy.

The problem for the Democratic Party, as Joseph Epstein put it in his recent review of The Journals of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is that McGovern, both in his person and through his reforms, turned it into a "coalition of victimhoods."  This was what made the superdelegate system necessary: without it, the Party might go rogue and select another McGovern.  As long as the race came down to an establishment candidate against an outsider, the system worked reasonably well.  It rarely picked winners, but it did at least allow the Democrats to unite around one candidate.  But this year, it is the ill-luck of the Democrats to have three candidates. Two of them are Hillary Clinton: the Hillary representing the establishment and the Hillary representing women. The third is of course Barack Obama, who represents the young, the liberal, and African-Americans. There is no safe choice for a superdelegate there: the coalition only made sense as long as the victims only had one candidate.  With two in the ring, picking the establishment candidate means siding with one victim over another.

And that is one reason why the Democrats are upset.  The other is simpler: the fact that the Democratic Party does not trust Democratic voters to pick the right candidate could easily lead voters of all stripes to decide that they, in turn, should not trust it.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.