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The Democrats' Problem With Democracy

The Democrats' Problem With Democracy

By Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

If the Democrats fail to elect their presidential candidate and allow the "Super delegates" to select him/her in the smoke-filled back rooms at the convention in Denver, the Democrats could create a long-term problem with their base. This, along with the decision to disenfranchise the Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan, could prove to be the Democrats' problem with democracy. In order to understand why the super delegate issue could be a problem, it is important to understand why the rules were created in the first place. For that, you have to go back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

1968 was a very tumultuous year in American history and politics. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-New York) was assassinated in June. Protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War were at their height. These issues and others carried over into the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, resulting in violent protests as students and others struggled to have their voices heard by the Democratic Party leadership. As a result of these clashes, the Democratic Party modified its rules for future elections to make the committed delegate selection process of their presidential nominee more inclusive and Democratic. The process would reflect the votes and interests of women and minorities, and not necessarily the wishes of the party leadership.

Well, democracy is not an exact science, and in 1972, following the new rules, the Democrats nominated Sen. George McGovern as their presidential candidate. As an anti-Vietnam war advocate and liberal, Senator McGovern was soundly beaten by incumbent President Richard Nixon. In 1976, the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter and the country elected the relatively unknown governor, even though Carter was not the favorite of party leadership.

As a result of these experiences and based upon the desire to reclaim control of the nominating process, the Democratic Party leadership implemented the "unpledged party leader and elected official delegates," or the "super delegate." Super delegates are a group of approximately 794 Democratic senators, members of Congress, governors, former presidents and vice presidents, and other party officials. These individuals are not committed to candidates, as is the case with state delegates. They can vote for whomever they choose.

Neither Senator Obama nor Senator Clinton will arrive in Denver in August with the 2,024 delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot. It looks like Senator Obama will go to the Democratic National Convention with more committed delegates than Senator Clinton, but shy of the 2,024 needed to clinch the nomination. His argument will be that the party elites should not override what a majority of the Democratic electorate has indicated. Senator Obama will talk about expanding the party. He will point to the independents and moderate Republicans that have joined his "movement." He will argue that if the party elites ignore his coalition ,it will be the death knell of Democratic politics for decades to come.

Senator Clinton will make the electability argument. The calculus is since it will take 270 of the 538 available electoral votes to win, there are six states, the "Big Six," that must be won in order to capture the White House. These states are California (55), New York (31), Pennsylvania (21), Illinois (21), Michigan (17) and Ohio (20), for a total of 165 electoral votes. Since she has already won primaries in New York, California, Ohio, and other states that a Democrat must win, she is more electable. In her mind, she stands the better chance of beating Senator McCain in November.

Both arguments have merit, and this issue will cause great consternation at the Democratic convention. The Democratic process is designed to allow "We the People" to express our views and have our elected officials carry them out. On the other hand, the nominating process is designed to field the candidate that puts his/her party in the best position to be elected. After all, a politician's primary job is to get elected.

The Democratic Party elite must do some real soul searching and ask themselves what the party truly stand for. Are they willing to risk a Democratic Party implosion if Senator Obama maintains his lead in pledged delegates, but the super delegates select Senator Clinton as their nominee? Even though the super delegate process is within the rules of the party, African-Americans, in particular, would feel totally disenfranchised by the party that has benefited from their uncompromising loyalty for more than 40 years. This move would only validate the pitch that Republicans have been making to African-Americans about the minimal rewards for blind loyalty. Why continue to provide your support to a party that refuses to support you? Independents and other moderate voters would also be well within their rights to abandon the party that did not carry out their wishes. It could create a very real and long-term problem for a short-term risk that has no guarantee of paying off.

The Democrats, other problem is risking the alienation of voters in Michigan and Florida, two states that have very strong Democratic ties. As it stands today, neither state's Democratic citizenry will have their voices heard in a primary nor will they have their delegates seated at the convention. This seems to have been no more than a power play on behalf of the party leadership for the sake of a power play. Again, it is a perceived short-term gain that has created a real long-term problem.

Here's the simple solution: In Florida, the Republican-led state government will not agree to foot the bill at state taxpayers' expense, nor should they. Since both the Clinton and Obama campaigns signed onto this bad idea, both campaigns and the Democratic Party should pay for a revote if this can be done in time. Why would the Obama campaign agree to this? Even if he loses this primary, the delegates Senator Clinton gains would not dramatically cut into his lead. He is selling the sleeves off of his vest. He gains more in the long run in the court of public opinion by looking magnanimous and truly committed to the democratic process.

In Michigan, since Senator Obama agreed to stay off the ballot, but Senator Clinton remained on the ballot as "uncommitted," the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party should split the cost of a revote there. In both states, it's more important to secure the confidence of Democratic voters than risk alienating their base in future elections.

John Adams once said, "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." If the Democrats don't follow the will of their voters and fail to reconcile with Michigan and Florida, they will, as they did in 2000 and 2004, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It will be political suicide. The Democrats will be accused of having a problem with democracy.


Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer/host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon," Producer/host of the television program "Inside the Issues With Wilmer Leon," a regular guest on CNN's "Lou Dobb's Tonight," and a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to or email:

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