The primary problem

Andrew Gumbel in this week's L.A. City Beat takes a look at the mess that is the Democratic primary system and how it's affecting Obama, Clinton, and the ultimate showdown with John McCain.

It’s an odd moment to be turning to Eliot Spitzer for any sort of wisdom – on politics, or anything else. But the man said something inescapably interesting in the first of his brief, excruciating responses to the prostitution ring scandal – the one where he had his devastated wife clutch hold of him from behind while he offered an apology about as heartfelt as a public-address announcement at the DMV.

Here’s what he said: “I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good, and doing what is best.”

In context, of course, this sounded like so much self-serving horseshit, some tiny glimmer of an attempt to convince New Yorkers that having a flaming hypocrite for a governor might still somehow be okay. That lasted about two minutes. But Spitzer – precisely because he was being so self-serving – also hit on one of the deeper conundrums of American politics. It is always, theoretically, about the greater good – the realization of ideas, not just personal ambitions. But, as we know, those personal ambitions (and character flaws) keep getting in the way. In fact, the system just about ensures that personality, and the clash of personalities, trump ideas and progress every time. Just look at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the sorry state of their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It wasn’t just Governor Spitzer’s career that melted down last week. The entire Democratic Party primary process melted down right along with him. How do we know this? We know it because when Barack Obama won the Wyoming caucus and the Mississippi primary, it barely mattered anymore. We know it because, for all the wrangling about Michigan and Florida, neither of them necessarily matter all that much anymore either.

The results don’t matter because the whole process has become a lie, a sort of small-d democratic con job. Anyone honestly looking at the state of the race knows that Obama will – barring some freak occurrence – end up in June with more pledged delegates than Clinton, and a bigger share of the popular vote. If the voice of the people were paramount here, then the contest would be over already. The party could embrace Obama as its nominee, put an end to all the damaging negativity, and start building up the guy rather than, à la Hillary, finding every possible means to pull him down.

The fact that Hillary is still fighting gives us a big clue that this is not about the voice of the people at all. It’s about raw power and the manipulation of a system that is already loaded, unfair, and byzantine to try to reach a desired outcome, will of the people be damned. The Clinton’s campaign spin – that Obama can only win in “boutique” states, that caucuses don’t really count, that he only appeals to “latte liberals,” not “real” Democrats and “real” American voters – ignores the hard reality of the numbers, which is that she is behind in this contest by any objective measure and is more than likely to remain so to the end.

Her suggestion that some votes are more “real” than others follows an inglorious tradition in this country of trying to exclude certain groups from participating in the political process at all – blacks, newly naturalized immigrants, Catholics, factory workers, reformist intellectuals, and so on. The Clinton campaign even appears to have embraced the overtly racist aspect of this tradition, distancing itself only hesitantly from Geraldine Ferraro’s outrageous remarks about Obama’s candidacy and apparently calculating that, in Pennsylvania at least, awakening the racist sensibilities of all those blue collar former Reagan Democrats might have political mileage.

Granted, the crisis in the Democratic Party is not just about Hillary’s overweening ambition and distasteful campaign tactics. The party has been trying for decades to rig the primary process in such a way as to insulate itself from unpleasant surprises, and now it is receiving the biggest conceivable karmic kick up the rear end.

Everything about the process is designed to favor the establishment candidate – the kickoff in white, relatively conservative states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the quick pile-on of races on Super Tuesday (itself originally conceived as a regional primary in the South to keep upstarts like Jesse Jackson at bay) and, of course, the votes accorded to unelected superdelegates, who make up the backbone of the party and have the option, if they feel the need to exercise it, to buck the will of the people at the national convention.

Most years, the primary battle is quick and painless, precisely because it is so unfair. Sometimes, for sure, it takes a little extra effort to silence upstarts like Gary Hart, or Jesse Jackson, or Howard Dean. This year, though, the extraordinary success of the Obama campaign has torn the party rulebook to shreds, making it unclear which side the establishment should be on and exposing the entire jerry-built system to ridicule. Some of the greatest absurdities have been at the Clinton campaign’s expense. She won the Nevada caucuses by a six-point margin, yet ended up with one fewer delegate.

And she won the Texas primary – albeit narrowly – only to lose the delegate fight there because of the Lone Star state’s weird allocation system, and because of its even weirder hybrid system that had voters returning to their precincts for caucuses as soon as the vote was over. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the winner of an election should be the candidate with the most votes, but those aren’t the rules by which this fight is being conducted, on either side. If the Clinton campaign is behaving worse, it is because they are ones running behind. For sure, Hillary had a choice – whether she would bow out for the sake of party unity and the bigger prize of victory in November, or whether she would embark on the high-risk strategy of trying to destroy her opponent and thus leave the party no option but to offer the nomination to her. The choice she made is her responsibility, and the damage it does will surely be laid at her door – especially if John McCain becomes the next president.

Once made, though, the choice taps right into the ugly electoral logic of fighting and winning at any cost, the sort of mano a mano combat we last saw play out in the Bush-Gore fiasco in Florida in 2000. It’s the absolute nightmare scenario for Democrats – two talented, potentially winning presidential candidates battering and bloodying each other so badly that the Republicans don’t have to do much more than sit back and watch. For Clinton to say John McCain is better prepared to be president than Obama is not just unforgivable – you can bet it will be played and replayed in television ads all summer and fall if Obama ends up being the nominee anyway.

Obama appears more conscious of the risks of going too negative, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. Already he’s started asking tough questions about how much real-world governing experience Clinton gained as First Lady – questions that, once again, the Republicans can just lift to bolster their own campaign later in the year.

Mitt Romney said last week that the Clinton 3 a.m. red phone advert was “the greatest gift she could have given the McCain campaign,” because if she wants to make this election about national security experience then there is only one possible winner, and he’s not a Democrat. McCain can probably count on a few more similar gifts before this is all over. Who can stop the madness? Not the Democratic Party grandees, who are as divided amongst themselves as the candidates. And not the voters, who have already been put on notice that they don’t entirely count. Their job, at this point, is to provide political cover for whatever manipulative tricks the party chooses to pull to justify its ultimate decision.

Don’t expect the enthusiasm and high participation they – we – have shown in this primary season to sustain itself in the general election.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Amen, brother. Spot on and well-written as any professional op-ed I've read.