The Fifty-Percent Solution

The only thing that hit harder than the thunderstorm Saturday afternoon during the D.C. Democratic Party meeting on contested convention delegations was the realization that “This ain’t over.”

True, a compromise on the seating of delegates from Michigan and Florida to the national convention emerged late Saturday night from the meeting of the Rules and By-Laws Committee of the Democratic National Committee.  After marathon testimony by supporters of presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and party leaders from both states, the 27-member committee voted to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida — both of whom had been penalized for moving their primaries earlier than the timeline set by national party officials for ’08.  Thus, former Bush White House aide Karl Rove’s prediction that this would be the first national convention since 1956 in which only 48 states were represented was proven incorrect.

But — and this is a big but — the delegates from Michigan and Florida would only get half-a-vote each.  In terms of the nomination battle, this means that underdog Clinton gained 87 delegates from the testy proceedings at the Wardman-Marriott Hotel in Washington, while front-runner Obama gained 63.  Team Clinton also got part of what it wanted in that, with delegations from Michigan and Florida now included in the overall universe of delegates to the national convention this August, the number a candidate needs to win nomination for President has been raised from 2,026 to 2,118.  That means that Obama has to work a bit harder to nail down the nomination and Clinton may have more time.  (On the morning after the Democratic rules conclave, the Washington Post reported that Obama now has 2,052 delegates to Clinton’s 1,877).

Is the Clinton campaign satisfied with the results of Saturday’s session?  Hardly.  Having pushed for a proposal to give full voting to the Florida delegation and failed, the Clinton backers supported the compromise measure and it passed 27 to nothing.  However, Clinton backers charged that the Michigan compromise — which gave 34.5 per cent of the delegates to Clinton and 29.5 per cent to Obama and was backed by party leaders from the state — does not reflect the results of the primary January 15th, in which the New York senator rolled up more than half the vote (after Obama and other Democratic hopefuls abstained from participation in the contest to show solidarity with Michigan Democrats who were penalized for holding such an early primary).

Following the vote on Michigan (19 to 8), Rules committee member and Clinton strategist Harold Ickes, Jr. told reporters that his candidate “will reserve her right to take it to the credentials committee” that will judge who goes to the national convention.  “Denver!  Denver!” chanted Clinton supporters at the hotel throughout the weekend proceedings, an obvious encouragement to the former First Lady to take her fight to the national convention in that city.

To say the least, all of this did not exactly present a warm face of the Democratic Party on television.  At a time many Republicans complain their party leaders in Congress seem more concerned with process than doing something constructive, the Democratic meeting Saturday (which was televised nationally on CSPAN and was the top story on national newscasts) was all about process and minutia.  Arguments flew like shrapnel, with one sharp exchange between a Clintonista and an Obamaniac making ABC News.  The testimony before the By-Laws and Rules Panel was riddled with racial references, with an African-American state legislator from Florida recalling her mother taking her to see people disenfranchised from voting and former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard saying, yes, he accepted national party rules, “but not rules that disenfranchised people.”

Touchy stuff, all right, and the situation was exacerbated by the fact that Committee Chairman James Roosevelt, Jr. did not call a lunch break until after 3:00 PM.

But there were two other issues that weren’t discussed much but which, after yesterday, are clearly going to come back to national Democrats — and haunt them.  

First, are Democrats going to recognize state laws and wishes rather than national party rules and dictums?  During the hearings yesterday, it was frequently noted that Michigan and Florida did indeed invite penalization of delegates by holding primaries earlier than the party rules for ’08 permitted.  But it was barely pointed out that this was done because in both states, legislatures enacted a primary and set the date by statute. Yes, it was noted that in Florida, the legislatures is strongly in Republican hands and has a Republican governor.  But even if one accepts that Democrats can justify Republican-made laws, then how does one make the case for defying a statute made by a legislature with one chamber controlled by Democrats and a Democratic governor?

As for disenfranchising the 600,000 Michigan voters who participated in the Democratic primary — a point made repeatedly by ex-Gov. Blanchard — Michigan Democrats have a history of disenfranchising themselves.  Because the state has no party registration, Water Wonderland Democrats have more often than not held caucuses to choose national convention delegates.  At the same time, this has not kept them from voting in Republican primaries and making an impact:  in 1980, when George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan and 2000, when John McCain defeated George W. Bush, both major upsets were credited with — you guessed it! — crossover Democratic voters.

(After the Saturday meeting, a onetime Republican colleague of former Michigan Rep. David Bonior when they both were in the state legislature told me:  “I wish you had asked him about what Michigan Democrats do when they don’t participate in primaries.  I bet he didn’t bring that up in his testimony!” He didn’t.)

First, when is the party going to agree on a set of rules for nominating Presidents and stick with them?  Since 1968, when the Democratic National Convention in Chicago voted by less than 100 votes to create a commission to study its nominating procedure, the process has changed and never really ended.  First, George McGovern chaired a committee to study the procedure (many say he was rewriting the rules to get himself nominated in 1972, which he was) and then North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt followed with a later commission, and then came mid-term party meetings.  In short, the process of revising party rules has never really ended for forty years, and remains a work in progress.  Republicans, while their process is not perfect, agreed that the party rules ratified by their national convention are set in stone for the next nominating process — no special meetings, no mid-term meetings and no revisions.  

Of the present Democratic process, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin may have said it best yesterday: “We’ve got a total irrational system of nominating our President.”