Thursday, May 22, 2008

What a Trip with Peabody and Sherman Might Say About the Dem Fight Over Michigan and Florida

Senator Hillary Clinton has a point as it relates to the Michigan and Florida delegate-seating controversy. In fact, she probably has several points. Among them...
  • Every vote should count.
  • Michigan and Florida should be represented at the Democratic National Convention.
  • Delegates ought to be seated by a formula reflective of the results in their states.
These points reflect principles of the "Mom and applie pie" variety, ones to which most Americans would readily assent. If the senator were pushing them in May, 2007, rather than in May, 2008, she would clearly hold the moral high ground and the political advantage.

But that may not be the case today.

To know why I say that, you'll need to play Sherman to my Peabody for another trip in the Wayback Machine with me. Our destination is 1972. (A presidential election of year of which this one sometimes reminds me, by the way. But that's another story best left to another post.)

In June of that year, South Dakota Senator George McGovern apparently clinched the Democratic presidential nomination by winning the California primary. The new delegate-selection process, established by a party commission headed by McGovern himself, stipulated that delegates should be parceled out proportionally no matter what process was employed in their selection, whether primaries, caucuses, state conventions, or some other way.

In spite of this, going into the nominating process, the national party had accepted the winner-take-all rules of California's primary. The winner of the state's primary, however thin the margin of victory, would receive all 273 of California's delegates to the national convention, a bountiful prize, amounting to 18% of the 1509 delegates needed to take the nomination.

But once McGovern had secured what appeared to be a majority of the elected delegates (superdelegates didn't come along until later in Democratic Party history), the anti-McGovern forces, certain that the South Dakotan wasn't supported by most Democrats and would lose the fall's general election, decided to mount a credentials fight against seating the entire California delegation for McGovern. Since the senator's ultimate delegate total was 1729 and he won California by a mere 5% plurality, his first-ballot nomination--and his ultimate selection by the convention--would have been jeopardized had the proposed rules change been approved. McGovern's opponents argued that the delegates should be seated proportionately, as in most of the other states' delegations.

The McGovernites argued that while their adversaries might be right on the principle of proportional representation, they were wrong on a larger one. That larger principle was that, simply put, it isn't fair to change the rules at the end of the game.

Every candidate had known well before June, 1972 that California was a "winner take all" primary, which is one reason McGovern's remaining opposition fought so hard to win there. It was under the rules prevailing when the campaign began that McGovern won the California primary and it was under those rules that he was entitled to all 273 delegates.

I well remember that my Dad, never intensely interested in politics, found the McGovern campaign's argument persuasive. He stayed up into the late hours of the night to watch the Democratic convention wrangle over the issue. (I would have stayed up with him, but I was working a ten-hour a day first shift job in a factory at the time and had to be up too early to spend the night watching the bickering Dems, some of whom were friends from college.) When the convention decided not to change the rules at the end of the game, Dad felt that right had been vindicated.

Fast forward to 2008. The year before, the Democratic National Committee stripped both Florida and Michigan of their right to send delegates to the national convention because they had the temerity to schedule their primaries on dates the DNC didn't like. It may, rightly, I think, strike one as odd that a national political party can presume to tell the elected officials of state governments when their states' elections will be held.

But when the DNC issued its edict regarding the primaries in Florida and Michigan, all of the candidates for the Democratic nomination issued not a sigh of protest. All the campaigns, including that of Senator Clinton, in fact, supported the DNC position. None of the candidates campaigned in the states, effectively nullifying the primaries per the intent of the national committee. The rules of the game were set and all were in accord with them.

In a few days, the DNC will reconvene, their main piece of business to decide what to do regarding Michigan and Florida. Should they seat delegates from the two states? If so, by what formula? Should they accept Senator Clinton's position that delegates should be seated in accord with the results of the two states' primary elections, even though no candidates campaigned in Florida or Michigan?

Ordinarily, maybe, the principles on which Clinton is basing her current arguments would be persuasive. But the simple fact is that everybody, including Senator Clinton, agreed to the rules of this game before it began. Is it fair then, for her to insist that the established rules, however ill-advised, be changed just before the final buzzer?

As those celebrated time travelers, Peabody and Sherman can tell you, timing is everything. Although Senator Clinton has many commendable points in her argument regarding Michigan and Florida, the time to protest the DNC's position on Michigan and Florida probably passed a long time ago, meaning that right about now, the New York senator may be wishing she had that Wayback Machine.

[UPDATE: Here's the NY Times article from last September, in which the Clinton campaign pledged its support of the DNC desicion about Michigan and Florida and any other states contemplating moving their primaries or caucuses close enough to steal Iowa's and New Hampshire's thunder. Thanks to Simply Skimming for pointing to this article.]

[While I enjoy analyzing current political situations through the prism of a life-long interest in history and politics, I refuse to endorse or deprecate any political candidates. As a pastor, I would deem it wrong to do so, except when Biblical imperatives are plain. Those who claim they can perceive my political sentiments from my "political" posts are almost always wrong.]

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