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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Superdelegates: The party bosses’ triumph

    In their zeal for justice, would-be reformers often make a mistake.

    Instead of using politics to bring about democracy, they attack politics itself – witness Salon columnist Joan Walsh’s recent claim that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama could win in November unless they “”ease up on the ugly divisive rhetoric.””

    It’s easy to get fed up with the bickering of politicians. But campaigning without “”divisiveness”” is not campaigning. Politics without differences – “”ugly, divisive”” differences – is not politics.

    Rather than waste time deploring that, we ought to direct our attention to a real threat to democratic politics – the role that “”superdelegates”” will play in deciding the next President of the United States.

    Superdelegates are simply powerful figures within the Democratic Party. Governors, senators, ex-presidents, congressional speakers and members of the intimidatingly powerful Democratic National Committee. They possess one-fifth of the voting power at the presidential convention, and thus the potential power to pick a president.

    Unimportant in any election since 1984, the superdelegates are now attracting attention for an obvious reason: If Clinton and Obama reach the end of the state primaries without a clear winner, the winner will essentially be decided by the party’s 794 superdelegates.

    The superdelegate system has raised some alarm, but already the reassurances are pouring in. Superdelegates are just “”peer review,”” claimed columnist Albert Hunt, as if picking a president were no more serious than replacing a school janitor.

    The general consensus is resignation: “”That’s just the way it’s always been.”” The superdelegate system, however, is not a relic of the old days. Superdelegates were created in 1982, and they were created to curb democracy, not uphold it.

    In 1968, after the popularity of Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign forced President Lyndon Johnson to give up the nomination, McCarthy was widely expected to get the nomination. Instead, the party awarded it to Hubert Humphrey, whom the great political writer Walter Karp aptly described as “”a hated president’s stooge.””

    Of course, Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon that year. And of course George McGovern, an anti-war candidate who won the nomination in 1972, lost to Nixon. The party bosses had refused to give his campaign any but the feeblest support.

    A recently released Nixon tape – aren’t they a bottomless source of delightful revelations? – reveals that Humphrey made a congratulatory phone call to the triumphant president on election night. As Rick Perlman wrote in the latest issue of Democracy, Humphrey “”all but admitted he had wanted McGovern to lose, and that he had tried to keep him from winning.””

    In 1976, Americans elected a peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter, an “”outsider”” candidate, unloved by the party bosses, who had promised never to lie to voters. He began his presidency, contrary to popular belief, with overwhelmingly high approval ratings.

    The Democratic Congress’s response was peculiar. They blocked Carter’s every attempted initiative, complained about him to the press and in general waged the kind of resentful political war that one might have expected them to wage against a Republican president. Before long, Carter looked weak and ineffective. He duly lost in 1980.

    Then came 1984, when voters again rallied around an “”outsider”” candidate, this time Gary Hart. Instead the Democrats awarded the nomination to the charisma-free Walter Mondale, who predictably lost. Hart had been on the verge of outpacing Mondale in the primaries, but Mondale had won almost all the newly created superdelegates’ votes.

    How can anyone make sense of this madness? Why would a party turn its back on its own candidate? Why would a party turn against its own popular president? And why would the Democratic Party complain about an excess of democracy?

    Susan Estrich, a member of the Rules Committee in 1984, recalled recently that the idea behind superdelegates was to restrict the power of “”all the fringe types who came out of the woodwork every four years to dominate the caucuses and primaries.””

    Whatever the actual reason is, it cannot be that. What, after all, was “”crazy”” about Jimmy Carter? Humble in image, moderate in policy, he was every bit the kind of president America needed then – and, frankly, the kind of president we need now.

    The Democratic leaders did not create the superdelegate system to protect us from “”disastrous”” presidents like Carter. They trashed Carter’s presidency in order to provide an excuse for things like the superdelegate system. They, too, wanted to bring an end to the “”ugly divisive rhetoric”” that results when “”outsider”” candidates threaten party power.

    Most of the rest of us can’t share their concerns – not least because we know in our hearts that presidents chosen by oligarchs will serve oligarchs, not us.

    Justyn Dillingham is a senior majoring in history and political science and is the arts editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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