February 14, 2008
"I would love to see a convention like there used to be," a friend wrote in an e-mail recently, "with multiple votes and wheeling and dealing before the nominee is decided." With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama now neck-and-neck in pledged delegates, my friend may get her wish.
The suspense is certainly exciting, and it’s quite nostalgic to those of a certain age who recall sitting dreamily with their father and his political friends in front of the RCA B&W on sweltering summer evenings as they drank highballs and handicapped the convention vote to the sober/wry commentary of Huntley/Brinkley. They argued, they roared, they rooted as the swaggering bosses took the mike and shouted, "The proud state of Oklahoma, the land of the everlasting hills, casts 15 votes for . . . ." They took the conventions, Republican and Democratic alike, as seriously as they did the Friday Night Fights. The women usually sequestered themselves in the kitchen, preferring to discuss the issues rather than view the spectacle; occasionally one or other would appear with a bowl of pretzels, linger a while before the flickering screen, and offer observations more astute than their bellowing spouses’.
Such are my recollections of the conventions of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, anyway. In fact, very few of them required multiple ballots to decide on a candidate; it was before the vote that most of the drama occurred, in the mechanics of seating delegations, the parsing of party rules, and the deals cut among national contenders and state "favorite sons."
The reorganization of the nomination process by both parties following the brawls at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was supposed to take the power from the politicos and place it in the hands of the people; by convention time, the state primaries and caucuses would reveal the nominee, and the floor vote of pledged delegates would be a mere formality. It worked that way, more or less, for over 30 years.
Not this year, for the Democrats at least. If the even-up distribution of delegates thus far continues in the remaining primaries up through June, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama will have enough to put them over the top as the convention begins. The victor may well be decided by, as my friend put it, the "wheeling and dealing" of the so-called "super-delegates," the national politicians and party dignitaries whose ex officio votes are bound to no state or popular preference.
Be careful what you wish for.
Some pundits speculate that if the Democratic nominee is selected on the convention floor, the party establishment will back Clinton, the establishment politician. Will this enrage Obama supporters and their pledged delegates, especially if he wins the total popular vote of the primaries? Will it fracture the party and leave the surviving candidate weakened and vulnerable to the assault of a Republican party now united (or uniting) behind their presumptive candidate, John McCain?
Before that gets a chance to happen, there is a hell of a long way to go. When all those states moved their primary dates up to February 5, hoping to have a real say in the nomination process, the leaders in each party saw this as an advantage — the earlier the races were decided, the more time there would be to raise money, sharpen policy positions, and direct fire at their November opponent. Now those millions of dollars are being squandered in intra-party warfare, and if there is still no clear winner by the last primary in June, the coffers will be empty, the positions undefined, and the true opponent unscathed.
Worse, there’s all that time to fill up. Already the Democratic contenders have become like sailors with cabin fever, cutting up their shipmates in quibbles over nothing.
And then you have voter fatigue. After a year of foreplay and the multiple climaxes of the early primaries, people may start waking up thinking it sure was nice but do I really want to spend so much time with this person? I can feel it myself: Clinton becomes a bore, and Obama’s haranguing voice grates on the ear.
For a long-term relationship to work, there must be steak under the sizzle — and the sizzle is quickly fizzling. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote last week, "Where, in this alleged season of change, is the big idea? What’s missing in this campaign is a bold vision of where the United States should be heading." Neither Obama nor Clinton, despite the excitement they have caused, "has offered the vision that this moment in history demands."
In the protracted fight for delegates, the issues have been buried in back-biting and ego-enhancement. Do the candidates have the courage to put ego aside and hang together to forge a unified, substantive platform for the fall campaign?
FOLLOW-UP: In last week’s column, I reported the results of the mock primary held the Monday before Super Tuesday in the fourth through eighth grades at St. Augustine Catholic School here in the South Bronx: 61% voted for Clinton, 33% for Obama, and 6% for Republicans McCain, Romney and Huckabee combined. The following day, the voters of Bronx County mirrored the students’ preferences: 60% for Clinton, 38% for Obama, 1% for John Edwards. Among the Republicans, McCain received 50%, Mitt Romney 21%, and Ron Paul 10%. The total votes cast in the election were 139,640 Democrat, compared to 5,407 Republican — here in the Bronx, Republicans comprise just 4% of the voters.
If the Democratic race stays tight, the school is planning a pre-convention vote before classes end in June. Stay tuned.