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The Super Problem

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Posted on May 8, 2008
AP photo / Carolyn Kaster

By Bernard Weisberger

Though there are still primaries left, the Democratic Party may be headed for an August dilemma. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is likely to enter the convention with a clinching majority of committed delegates chosen by voters in primaries and caucuses, but Obama is almost guaranteed to have more of them. So, barring a huge late turnaround, the deciding votes will come from the approximately 800 “superdelegates,” automatically seated ex officio and free to vote as they please.

Who are these powerful insiders? Why are they there? The story goes back 40 years, to when the party, battered by the bloody debacle of the 1968 convention and subsequent loss to Richard Nixon, revised its method of selection to bring in more delegates who were outside the official circles of power, particularly women and people of color.

But in 1972 George McGovern lost 49 states. In 1976 Jimmy Carter squeezed out a close win over Gerald Ford, who was still floundering in the blowback from Watergate, and in 1980 Carter was buried under a Reagan landslide. In 1982, looking at this record of three losses in four tries, the party leaders decided to reform their earlier reform and bring back seasoned veterans familiar with the unlovely sausage-making machinery of actually choosing a candidate who can win.

The list now includes all Democratic members of Congress and of the Democratic National Committee, all sitting Democratic governors, all living former Democratic presidents and vice presidents and all past Democratic majority or minority leaders in both houses of Congress. They make up about 20 percent of all the delegates—but 40 percent of the 2,025 needed to nominate.

If the Clinton team can persuade these men and women by summer that Obama is unable to win the general election and they choose her despite primary vote numbers in his favor, there is sure to be a loud and anguished protest about the violation of the democratic process. Delegates who have sweated their way through grueling primaries to win votes for their favorite don’t want to feel that they simply took part in a nonbinding beauty contest. But the “supers” (a term the Democratic Party officially dislikes) could bristle equally at the idea of simply rubber-stamping the decision of delegates swept into the convention hall on a possibly short-lived wave of enthusiasm for a charismatic candidate. Either way, when the winner’s hand is raised on the platform amid the bands and the balloons, it’s going to be a wounded Democratic Party that finally gets down to contesting John McCain. And there’s a possibility that disgruntled stay-home supporters of the loser could hand the election to the Republicans.

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The party’s in a pickle for which reformers and counter-reformers prepared the vat and the spices.

The problem didn’t arise sooner because in all the Democratic nomination contests from 1984 on, the winners had the victory sewed up before the opening gavel fell. The new formula yielded only two wins in six elections. Actually, three, for Al Gore would have clearly won in Florida but for the questionable denial of ballots to large numbers of African-Americans and the confusion of many elderly Democratic voters by a “butterfly ballot” that made it hard to pick out Gore’s line. The Supreme Court’s fiat, however, confirmed the theft.

In all it appears that the post-1968 reforms as modified by the post-1980 reforms have not been lucky for the Democrats. The law of unintended consequences that often dogs reformers may be at work.

Open primaries, first introduced at the start of the last century, were a wonderful democratizing idea. But no one could foresee how, a century later, the primaries themselves would suffer the debasements of the general election—too much money required simply to enter the race, let alone win; too much media attention to personalities and too little to policies, principles and programs.

Certainly it was heartening after 1968 to see faces on the Democratic convention floor more representative of the variety of American voters. And most people do not yearn for the era of nominations made at 2 a.m. by the old (and white) boys in the smoke-filled rooms. Yet look at what the old system produced, contrasted with the new. In the 10 elections ending in 1968 the Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson twice, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. In the nine since then, McGovern, Carter twice, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton twice, Gore and John Kerry. Whatever their individual virtues, it would be hard to argue that they represent a major improvement on those seven predecessors.

It does seem as if the arranged marriage between a system of popularly chosen committed delegates and a small but potentially decisive cadre of unpledged and unelected but highly experienced delegates has struck a snag. Whatever happens this November, thoughtful Democrats of all persuasions need to take another look, perhaps another stab, at reconciling the two—or expediting a divorce.


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By Conservative Yankee, May 10, 2008 at 7:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The 80 election by any measure was a landslide for Reagan. Leave aside for a minute that the incumbent always has the advantage, Reagan took liberal bastions long thought solidly Democratic.
Carter took six States Reagan took 44. Carter received 49 electoral votes, Reagan got 489.(By contrast Barry Goldwater got 52 against LBJ’s 486.)  The only state in the heavily Democratic Northeast to vote for Carter was Rhode Island. The only State west of the Mississippi River to vote for Carter was Hawaii.
Popular vote   43,903,230   35,480,115
Percentage   50.7%    41.0%

Not only was this a “landslide” but it was a sea-change for the Democratic party.  They lost the Senate and many many house seats. Some Democrats blamed Carter for the Senate and house losses, because the notoriously anti-party Democrat conceded after the chips were down early in the evening, and before the polls in the Mountain States and the West were closed.  This resulted in the lowest vote tally in Hawaii’s history.

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By cyrena, May 9, 2008 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

THANK YOU Jackpine Savage. I had this very same question myself.

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By cyrena, May 9, 2008 at 5:39 pm Link to this comment

I’m sure. This IS a description of our government…has been for years now.

(can’t blame it on the democrats either, aside from the ones who actually voted to put the Fascists in office).

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By jackpine savage, May 9, 2008 at 4:28 pm Link to this comment

Agreed.  Even regional primaries (rather than a national day) would be cool, and that would allow the candidates to spend time in different areas.  We could divide the country into six regions, with one month of campaigning in each region and a set number of debates.  And the regional order could be rotated each cycle too.

Instant runoff for the primaries would be a real boon for the issues and the lesser candidates.  Edwards (for example) might not have won many states outright, but if he consistently came in second then his ideas would get a lot more attention.  Delegates could be awarded proportionally, with some bonus for winning the state.  In most cases, the nominee would need the delegates of at least one other candidate to make the magic number…voila, coalitions are formed.

But you’re right, it isn’t going to happen because it would be the right way to do it…

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By sloper, May 9, 2008 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“...in 1980 Carter was buried under a Reagan landslide.”

Carter was not buried in a landlside. This piece is sloppy history.  Reagan’s was a narrow victory in ‘80 against Carter, but a andlside as incumbent against the weak colorless HHH clone Mondale in ‘84.
Carter lost in ‘80 only because he was foolish enough to cave in to Kissinger’s & David Rockefeller’s insistent demands that he let the dying shah into the US ... against the warning of Carter’s own ambassador to Iran that this would precipitate a hostage crisis.  The Iranians obliged oil man & former CIA director George H.W.Bush by holding the US diplomats hostage until after election day, thereby giving the Reagan/Bush ticket its strongest card against Carter & its slim again of victory.

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By troublesum, May 9, 2008 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

If we lived in a democracy we would have a national primary with automatic or instant voter run-off.
Because of the money involved in this lunatic primary system that will never happen.  Democracy is not for us.

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By Leefeller, May 9, 2008 at 6:56 am Link to this comment

Great post jps, nothing but the truth, turns out much more complex than it seems.

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By Leefeller, May 9, 2008 at 6:48 am Link to this comment

Not sure, but I believe you described our government?

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By jackpine savage, May 9, 2008 at 5:41 am Link to this comment

Being a Michigander, i can offer some insight.  First, i’ve read that in Florida it had nothing to do with moving the primary, per se.  It was really about a property tax issue that had to be voted on by a certain date; that issue was put on the primary ballot.  The tax issue was a major reason why so many people turned out to vote in a primary that didn’t count. (As opposed to MI, where the turnout was very low…lower than the Rep primary turnout.)

In Michigan, the issue is a lot more complex.  Michigan actually tried the same thing for the 04 cycle, but Terry McAuliffe smacked it down.

Michigan wanted more recognition.  Realistically, MI would make a perfect early primary state.  It is a big swing state and it covers a large number of demographics…from urban AA, to research university towns, to filthy rich suburbs, to blue-collar working class cities, to butt poor backwoods rural areas, to agricultural bread baskets.

In this case, however, the real reason was a distraction.  At the time that the decision was made, the state legislature was unable to write a new business tax or pass a budget for 08.  In fact, they had to pull an all-nighter just to get an extension passed.  All that only highlighted the rough economics of the state as a whole.

The idea was that moving the primary would take everyone’s mind off the fumbling ineptitude of state legislators and bring a windfall of political money from the campaigns.

There is a side story that the move would benefit Clinton, which meshes with the fact that most of the MDP leadership is close to her/them.  Everything that Mark Brewer (MDP chair) said to my face suggests that to be true…regardless of the story that bert will tell about it being all the fault of evil Republicans.

The short story is that inept politicians at the state level tried to make an end run around the rules that they had tried to end run before.  This time they went through with it, it backfired, and they blew $10M that they didn’t have to spend on something that didn’t/doesn’t count.  My guess is that the DNC has stuck by its harsh punishment because this isn’t the first time ‘we’ tried this trick.

A revote here isn’t going to happen because the State Supreme Court ruled that going through the voter rolls to disqualify people who voted in the Rep primary from revoting would be unconstitutional.  That and the state Senate went to Easter recess without taking up the matter (the recess was the deadline for realistically being able to organize a revote), which only goes to show that they aren’t particularly worried about “every voice being heard”.

Side note: you’ll sometimes hear about the “big” campaign for “uncommitted”.  That’s a lie.  There was some get out the vote movement for “uncommitted”, but it started just a few days before the primary.  And it was as much about giving the MDP the what for as it was a shadow campaign for Obama/Edwards.  And much of it stemmed from the revelation (just a week or so before the primary) that ballots with write-in votes would be thrown away.  That was strange, because the ballots were printed with a spot for write-ins.  Whether the MDP decided that to punish Obama/Edwards for following the DNC rules or to hold a Stalinist “election” is a matter of conjecture and conspiracy.

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By Conservative Yankee, May 9, 2008 at 5:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Traditionally that huge campaign fund stash is spent in early primary states.By the time 4 primaries have past, many candidates have exited the field, so later states do not get a chance to vote for a “Dennis Kucinich” or a “Chris Dodd.”

New Hampshire gets tons of money for their “First in the Nation” primary. Motel rooms, rental cars, liquor and all the places where this very frugal state gets the lion’s share of taxes.

Iowa also has a big stake in being “first” for years there was jockeying for this position then The Democrats “fixed” their primaries to begin AFTER February 02. States (Iowa and NewHampshire) who already had their primaries set before that date were exempted. Other states have been pissed off ever since.

I see two realistic ways to solve this problem forever. The first would be a primary schedule based on when States entered the union. That would put Delaware first and forever relegate New Hampshire and Iowa to the Republican column.  The second system would entail a “national primary day” which we’ll never achieve, because the media would lose about 1 billion dollars every four years.

Neither of these solutions will ever come to pass. Money is far more important then decent government or selecting a competent president.

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By repsac3, May 9, 2008 at 5:30 am Link to this comment

I recently read a suggestion that the votes of the people count, but that MI & FL be stripped of their super delegates, on the theory that the folks responsible for changing the date of the primaries were these same luminary party boy & girl bosses who seem to count for the DNC more than we little people.

I still think that rules are rules, and once one signs an agreement—say, to not campaign in a place, and not to have the vote in that place count—one ought to live up to it, and thus the primaries held there should not be a part of this cycle’s election process.

Still, the idea does have some merit…

In the end, though, the whole superdelegate system is undemocratic, and ought to be scrapped before the next elections.

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By Conservative Yankee, May 9, 2008 at 5:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Will Rogers said, way back in the Forties; “I don’t belong to an organized party…I’m a Democrat”

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By cyrena, May 8, 2008 at 9:21 pm Link to this comment

•  “Senator Obama, who should know something about disenfranchisement, hides behind ‘the rules are the rules’.

This is what I mean about really old school, narrow, and uninformed mentalities.

Can you dihey, or anyone else for that matter, tell us WHY Senator Obama “should know something about disenfranchisement?” That’s not to suggest that he does NOT, because we know that much of his professional career and adult life has been devoted to building coalitions among those who HAVE been disenfranchised, at least since his time in Chicago.

But, I don’t think that’s what you meant when you say that he should “know something about disenfranchisement.” So tell us, why SHOULD he? Certainly NOT in his youth or formative years would he have felt the type of ‘disenfranchisement’ that you are suggesting here. He was born and raised in Hawaii, which is an ethnically diverse state, where for the most part, racial discrimination as has been birthed in ‘Southern Democracy” doesn’t apply. That’s not to say that Hawaii doesn’t have it’s own history of colonization by Anglos, just as the rest of the US was colonized, but Barack Obama would NOT have experienced the same type of ‘disenfranchisement’ that you suggest here…not in Hawaii, and obviously not afterwards either, since we know that he DID attend some of the best institutions of higher learning that the US has to offer. And, Barack Obama is only 47 years old. So, I’m very curious to know why you or anyone would make this assumption, unless you are stuck in that same old time mentality of the George Wallace era.

This too, continues to be a source of amazement to me, on the rare occasions that somebody, (usually from the OLD South) actually says it…

•  “The disenfranchisement is especially galling for the Floridian Democratic activists who fought their hearts out in 2000 to have truly every vote counted in their state only to be screwed by the Supreme Court and the cowardly Gore who collapsed into a heap of jelly.

Can anyone who accuses Al Gore of being ‘cowardly’ and collapsing into a heap of jelly, tell me what he SHOULD HAVE DONE (beyond what he DID do) in the face of the fraud by which The Coup of 2000 was orchestrated? I’ve asked before, and none of his ‘accusers’ have ever come up with a single response. (leading me to believe that they probably don’t have a clue to what Al Gore actually DID do)

What would the same people suggest to the innocent bystander who’s been wounded in a drive-by shooting? Or how about the person walking down the street to get to work, who gets mugged? As you shake your fingers and accuse them of being cowardly, (and allowing the muggers to steal the money that the victim would have shared with you) what would you have had them do in response to their attacks? Should the victim of the mugger simply have fought back, and killed the attacker? I guess that’s one method, though I would hope that folks understand that might not always be an available one, and has it’s own consequences as well. Same with the bystander that gets wounded in the drive-by. Should that person simply not have been in that space at that time? (I suspect they wouldn’t have been, had they been able to foresee that.)

So, what should Al Gore have done? Simply not run? What do you recommend for ANY ‘victim’ of anything? Should they simply not exist? Well, here’s a thought. The Coup of 2000 that ushered in the Full Blown Fascist Regime wasn’t perpetrated against Al Gore or the Democratic Party. It was perpetrated against Americans, each and every one of us. So before you continue on with who should be blamed, and who should be punished, for whatever you think goes wrong, have a look in the mirror, and know that your ‘threats’ to not vote for any democrat don’t just hurt you, they hurt the whole. Point your figures inward and shake them.

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By nonna, May 8, 2008 at 7:11 pm Link to this comment

Between caucuses, super delegates and a love struck media,  the Democratic party had been made to look amateurish, inefficient, incompetent and disorganized.  In short they give the impression of being totally incapable of managing a primary election let alone run the country. In their efforts to micro manage this campaign to suit their purpose, they are losing the opportunity to take back the White House.  Middle school children can probably run an election better than this disaster.

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By jbart, May 8, 2008 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have a single question that,for the life of me,I can’t seem to totally understand. A question that isn’t being asked about the “why”. As in “why” Florida and Michigan felt “compelled” to go outside the system and change when they held their respective primaries… earlier than planned.  Can anyone out there educate me on this?  Their doing this has cost a lot of wasted primary campaign funds and has hurt the Democratic party in doing so.  What was the reason(s) for their breaking with the planned system? It’s just a question I have.

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By Pacrat, May 8, 2008 at 4:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So what is this nonsense about super delegates who upsurp the power of the voters? The republicans, one would think, would find this an interesting way to keep power in the hands of a few, but they have learned how to do that without superdelegates. It’s a crazy idea and it’s time to dump it. Let the voters decide on their candidate!

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By FOTO, May 8, 2008 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Prior to declaring candidacy for president both, Clinton and Obama, “contributed” money to the super-delegates.  Clinton bought $300,000 worth of super-delegates and Obama bought himself about $800,000 worth.  Previous elections show that 85% of the super-delegates vote for the candidate who “contributed” the most money.  In this case it was Obama.  Good-bye Hillary. 

This entire super-delegate phenomenon is an archetype of the Democratic Party; let the common people cast their ballots and believe they are making their own choice, but we’ll tell them what’s good for them when the rubber meets the road. 

What Democrats should be asking is, “How does a nobody junior senator come up with nearly a million dollars to sprinkle around the super-delegates BEFORE he declares his candidacy and collects legal campaign money.  This guy is as bought and sold as his super-delegates.

Our entire election process needs a good flushing.

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By Conservative Yankee, May 8, 2008 at 1:45 pm Link to this comment
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By Expat, May 8 at 6:24 am

winner take all?

That’s what gave us Bosh over Gore in 2000 Gore had almost a million more popular votes, but the electoral college gave bush the election based on winner take all (electors)

I would assent to winner take all by congressional districts, but not by State. Vermont has 300,000 more people than Wyoming, but the same number of electors!

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By Conservative Yankee, May 8, 2008 at 1:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The national party should have offered these states a very long time ago to pay for their primaries at a later date. It did not.”

Yeah, and the cops should pay my speeding tickets!

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By dihey, May 8, 2008 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

The so-called super delegates are not the problem of the totally dysfunctional Democratic Party. Florida and Michigan are. It was, indeed, correct to punish the leadership of these state’s Democratic Parties according to the rules. It is quite another matter that the potential Democratic voters of these states, who were powerless to prevent the actions of their party bosses, are still disenfranchised in the matter of choosing a Democratic candidate. The national party should have offered these states a very long time ago to pay for their primaries at a later date. It did not. Today the Democratic Party behaves as if we are still in the time of ‘Southern Strategy’ before the sixties when black voters were disenfranchised there by all sorts of shenanigans from the likes of Gov. Wallace. Senator Obama, who should know something about disenfranchisement, hides behind ‘the rules are the rules’. That, my friends, is autocracy worthy of a Czar. The disenfranchisement is especially galling for the Floridian Democratic activists who fought their hearts out in 2000 to have truly every vote counted in their state only to be screwed by the Supreme Court and the cowardly Gore who collapsed into a heap of jelly. Now they are screwed by the DNC and Obama’s campaign. If I was one of these activists of 2002 I would not vote in November. I will not vote either for any Democrat in Congress or for the Democratic presidential candidate, be it Obama or Clinton, because that arrogant, autocratic, inflexible, idiotic party deserves to disappear forever.

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By Purple Girl, May 8, 2008 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

Who is undermining the Demcoratic party - who has used the same tactics inflicted on the Old School Republican party-relegating them to either Independents or Libertarian Party- Neo Con’s who pledge allegience to the Corps while camoflagued in Blue- memeber so the DLC. Just listen to Hillary- ‘obliterate Iran with nukes’, Us & Them Rhetoric when talking about the voters in the Democratic party,Her undying support of the Bush/Cheney doctrine with only whispers of dissent to ‘Show ’ she’s against them. Claiming the ‘White Female Blue collar’vote (BS), pulling every Rovian tactic out to discredit her ‘fellow’ democratic opponent. She is NO Dem- She’s a Corp Neo Con with crazy relgious undertones which cause this Ol’ Dem serious pause & Concern, Not just for our party but for Our country!She Terrifies me as much as Cheney did when he slithered out from the ‘Shadows’ and was exposed to the light. Hillary’s not a ‘Monster’ they have no control over what they are or what they do- She is a Sociopath- not conscience and total disregard for anything or anyone who gets in the way of what she wants. She an dth erest of her minions in theDLC must be kicked out of the Democratic Party before we Are relegated to the Green and Socialist Parties !!
the Democratic Party is Nothing without the Base and have no doubt US old schoolers will take our toys ($$ & votes) and leave you High and Dry. Have you noticed the schism happening in the undermined Republican party- they won’t have enough voters in Nov to elect Mac as a Dog catcher (no disrepect to dog catchers).Steal this nomination away from Obama and You too will share the same fate- and we’ll run ever other Dem out of office too!

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By Leefeller, May 8, 2008 at 12:07 pm Link to this comment

It may be only me, but calling them super-delegates does seem pretentious.  Almost cast system like.  We should change the name superdelegets to something more suited like “tiebreaker”,  “chosen ones” “nutbreaker”, or “people up yours”  delegates.  I vote we call them the hanging chad delegates!  While we are at it, we can look at the word and concept of “Democrat”  it may be time to change the name of the Party to something else at the same time,  any ideas?

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By Conservative Yankee, May 8, 2008 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is an election the Democrats should have won in a walk. 

BUT

The voters have, continually, for the last century refused to elect all but one Senator to the office of president. Currently we have three senators and no other realistic choice. People will stay home ofer this… Democrats have more registered voters.

This is an important election, but the Dems had to “prove something” they couldn’t go with the time tested prototype, we needed to make a “statement” about diversity.  Unfortunately, there are still (I would guess many) folks who will not support a black person. Jena, Abner Louima,and Sean Bell illustrate this well.

There are still people who will never vote for a woman president, even one with the class knowlege and experience Hill lacks.

So the folks who gave Reagan the nod over Carter (including me) will vote for McCain, the losers of the nominating process will stay home. and the D party of Buchanan will once again go down to defeat.

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By Frankie, May 8, 2008 at 8:40 am Link to this comment

The Super Delegates will back the winner and that is without a doubt Barack Obama, Clinton’s posturing not withstanding. Obama is already sounding presidential. Even Clinton’s supporters are asking her to get out now.

Of course, Bernard Weisberger is correct that the party should create new rules that make it impossible in the future for a nominee to be imposed from above.  That should not be an option in a party based on democracy.

As for the votes in Michigan and Florida, those state parties knew the score when they opted to break the primary rules and set their elections earlier than the party allowed. They should be held accountable and their votes should not be counted. Both Obama and Clinton signed agreements to this prior to the election.  It is only now that Clinton believes those votes could help her that she is insisting on Florida and Michigan being counted.

Yes, the Democratic party is messier than the Republican party.  Clearly we are not the party of order for order’s sake. Who cares? We are Democrats!

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By Maezeppa, May 8, 2008 at 7:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe the Superdelegates will keep the Democrats from nominating the 2007 version of Eugene McCarthy.  McCarthy was a fine nominee but he wasn’t electable.

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By Expat, May 8, 2008 at 7:24 am Link to this comment

^ a Frankenstein Monster going back to 1968.  I have no sympathy for the coming debacle that will visit the democrats in the most important election in the history of this country.  Yet here they stand with their weak/non-existent leadership.  You tell me; who’s the leader of the Democratic Party?  Frankly, I have no idea!  If you know, kindly tell me who it is.  The republicans, despicable as they are have a lesson or two to teach the dems.  Pelosi is as pathetic as Clinton; neither really risking anything and following the republican lead.  Obama is at least putting out a vision of possibilities and in this there is risk.  This is a time for bold moves (not seen for a long time) and a parallax view.  It is past time to change this corrupt system of super delegates for a straight forward 1 person 1 vote in the primaries and winner take all.  Anything less is corrupt!

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