Monday, June 2, 2008

Battleground in the Suites

Photo: Clinton Trying to Change the Rules

Dems, the Rules
And The Audacity

Of "Nope!"

By Christopher Hayes

The first person I encounter after crossing the Duke Ellington bridge from my apartment in Northwest DC to the Marriott Hotel, the location of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee Meeting, is Helen Bradley.

A Clinton supporter who's flown in from Northern California, Bradley is standing in a red shirt with a sticker that says "Count Michigan and Florida" and a sign that says "Count Every Vote." When I ask her why she's there, she's sunny, earnest and on-message. She points at her sign and says. "For me, it's not about winning. Florida and Michigan should have a right to vote."

The Clinton supporters sitting in a coffee shop a block away are far less politic:

"I saw a picture of Michelle Obama in someone's office the other day and it made me nauseous," says one woman.

"My whole family is Republican so now we're all united around John McCain," adds another.

"I don't want a leader who wants to sit down with leaders of Muslim countries," offers a third. "He scares me."

This level of bitterness probably isn't particularly representative of Clinton supporters at large but it's sentiments like these that haunt the nightmares of Howard Dean and the DNC. Dean addresses it head-on in his opening remarks the Rules and Bylaws Committee, recalling a midnight call he received from Al Gore in the waning days of the 2004 primary, when it was clear Dean would not be the nominee. "I was very, very angry at my party for some of the things that had been done," he said. "I remember getting a call from Al Gore, pacing up and down in the hallway. Ranting and raving: what do I owe the Democratic party after the way I've been treated!?! Tell me! After twenty minutes, Al Gore said: 'Howard this is not about you. This is about your country.' At that point not even my wife could have said that to me. But whatever I had been through, he had the presidency snatched from him forty days after the election by five intellectually bankrupt Supreme Court judges. This is not about candidates. This is a story about Americans and its greatness."

High-flown rhetoric--"America and its greatness!"--is in no short supply. After all, the entire media industrial complex is here, chasing an elusive plot point in a campaign narrative that has been awkwardly stalled since the Indiana primary. And few of the assembled politicians resist the urge to righteously fulminate about the "fundamental human rights" at stake. You'd think they were on the battlefield at Lexington or on the bridge in Selma, not a meeting of party bureaucrats in a Washington hotel.

(Covering this is not what most political reporters got into the game for. The reporters in the overflow room check their Blackberries and when a meager lunch buffet is wheeled out mid-way through the meeting they descend on it like a colony of ravenous vultures.)

First on the agenda is Florida. For all the heated rhetoric, there's actually something very close to consensus on how it should be handled. The four witnesses from Florida--party official Jon Ausman, Sen. Bill Nelson, State Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Rep. Robert Wexler-- all stress that the timing of the Florida primary was largely the doing of a Republican legislature, and that the voters of the state shouldn't be completely disenfranchised, since the error was not theirs. Some on the committee point out, quite rightly, that as high as turnout was, it might have been even higher had the voters not been told their vote wouldn't count.

Even Joyner, Clinton's most impassioned supporter, who invokes the struggles against apartheid in advocating for a full seating of delegates, concedes that had voters not been told the primary wouldn't count, turnout might have been as high as 3 million. The point is that enfranchising those who did vote would in a sense, disenfranchise as many as million or more voters who didn't.

The Solomonic proposal on the table, offered by Ausman, is to cut the voting power of the delegation in half, which would result in a net gain of 19 delegates for Clinton. (Ausman also wants the state's superdelegates to be seated and given full votes). Sen. Bill Nelson, a Clinton supporter, endorses this proposal, as does the Obama campaign's surrogate, Rep. Wexler. (though they want the super-d's votes also to be halved.) Joyner, however, wants the whole kit and kaboodle. "I've been told that you ask for what you want," she says.

"In life you don't get everything you want, but I want it all." The audience applauds, the press room cracks up. This is the Clinton campaign's M.O. of maximalism on full display. Call it the audacity of "Nope!".

But Florida's just the warm-up for the far, far thornier issue of Michigan. In 2007, when Michigan jumped ahead in the primary calendar, and was stripped of its delegates, Edwards and Obama removed their names from the ballot out of deference to the decision. Clinton did not. The result was a bizarre primary in which Clinton, as the only major candidate on the ballot, won 55 percent of the vote, while supporters of other candidates (in what should be noted was a very low-turnout election) were left to write in their candidates or vote uncommitted. Outside of the US, there's a fairly long pedigree of elections being held in which prominent opponents are left off the ballot: Castro's Cuba and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to name just two examples. By those standards, Clinton underperformed, but if the results were to stand, she would be awarded 73 delegates, with 55 delegates elected as uncommitted.

The bigwigs of Michigan Democratic politics--including DNC state chair Mark Brewer and Senator Carl Levin--have jury-rigged a solution. Using the results from the actual primary, the exit-polling which put Clinton's support at around 45 percent and Obama's around 35 percent and the 30,000 write-in votes that under Michigan law cannot count but most likely went overwhelmingly to Obama, they propose seating the full delegation with a 69-59 delegate split favoring Clinton. This would approximate an 8-point Clinton victory in the state.
Unlike the Florida compromise, though, nobody seems to be buying it.

Long-time Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes, who's the most aggressively partisan of the committee members, tells Carl Levin that simply hatching some rough allocation of the delegates in a compromise deal "does violence" to the DNC charter's call for the nominating delegations to represent a "fair reflection" of the voter's preferences. Why stop at giving Obama a net 8 delegates? he asks bitingly. Why not 10 or 20? (He expresses no opinion on the "violence" to the concept of "fair reflection" done by an election in which the leading candidate's name is not on the ballot.)

Obama surrogate and former John Edwards campaign manager David Bonior also rejects the Levin-Brewer compromise. Calling the allocation "arbitrary," he basically says that divining the actual preference of the state's voters is impossible given the circumstances and advocates simply seating the delegation at 50/50. That way the party activists from the state can attend the convention, but the hollow exercise in ersatz democracy in Michigan would have no effect on the nomination battle.

Clinton's folks, of course, find this unacceptable and for an hour everyone in the witness chair and the committee tread over the same ground: what to do with a screwy election result that wasn't supposed to count in the first place? What, under these circumstances, counts as a "fair reflection" of the voters' preferences?

The obsession with this question (combined with wireless access to the Internet and a mind that's starting to wander after nearly six hours in the overflow room) puts me in mind of Kenneth Arrow. The Nobel Prize-winning economist (and life-long Democrat) published his famous Impossibility Theorem in 1951, in which he mathematically proved that transmitting an electorate's ordinal preferences for a slate of three or more candidates in a way that doesn't do violence to our intuitive sense of democratic choice is actually impossible.
The strict conditions here may not hold (we're down to two candidates) but the larger point seems apt. The real problem here is less the content of the rules and more the fact that they're being revisited ex post-facto. Donna Brazile manages to more or less nab the final word for the morning session when she lectures Blanchard on exactly this point. "My mama always taught me to play by the rules and respect those rules," she says to enormous applause from the Obama supporters.

"My mother also taught me, I'm sure you're mother also taught you, that when you decide to change the rules, especially in the middle game and the end of the game, that is referred to as cheating."

The air seemed to tighten around that word the moment it was out of her mouth. Set against the "spirit of unity" everyone's been invoking all day it seemed taboo. But it least had the virtue of being true.

[Christopher Hayes writes blogs for the Nation,]

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