It is increasingly looking like end times in American politics. Ann Coulter--Ann Coulter!--has vowed to vote for Hillary Clinton over John McCain. And now many yellow-dog Democrats, who once worshipped at the Clinton temple, sound as if they have just consumed the complete collection of Wall Street Journal editorial page writings on Billary.
These days, you will commonly hear Obama supporters, and even many undecided Democrats, describe the Clintons as mendacious, brutal, willing to bend (or break) any rule in pursuit of power. Not all of these criticisms are fair. A decade's worth of resentment has come rushing out, as Democrats have suddenly felt free to despise the Clintons without worrying that their venting might aid Republicans. In certain quarters, it's an old-fashioned pile-on. Looking at their plight with any detachment, it is even possible to develop a measure of sympathy for the Clintons. Or it was, anyway, right up until the point at which Hillary threatened to steal the nomination. And theft is the only way to describe the plan she has floated for certifying the Florida and Michigan delegations.
The back story is simple: The Florida and Michigan legislatures moved their primaries forward in the calendar to exert greater influence on the nominating process. But, by scheduling their primaries before February 5, they broke rules set by both the Democratic and the Republican parties. The GOP punished these scofflaw states by stripping them of half their delegates to the Republican National Convention. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) took them all away--and, so, the Democratic candidates did not campaign in these states.
Without ads and stump speeches--Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan--the actual primary votes in these states were meaningless beauty contests, and perhaps not even that. Knowing that their ballots meant nothing, many voters stayed home. And, as everyone expected, Hillary romped to victory on the basis of her brand name and voters' lack of familiarity with the alternatives.
You can certainly debate the merits of the DNC's move. (See Eve Fairbanks's "The Squeak" on page 8 for a narrative of how DNC Chairman Howard Dean has failed to maintain control over the process.) What is beyond debate, though, is that all the major Democratic campaigns accepted this move without complaint. Clinton, along with her rivals, signed a pledge not to "participate" in the Michigan and Florida primaries.
But as soon as it became clear, in the wake of Iowa and on the eve of South Carolina, that Clinton potentially faced an extended battle for delegates, she began to demand that the rules be changed in the middle of the game. Her campaign has been arguing that the non-contested elections in Michigan and Florida should be made retroactively meaningful--and, therefore, that Clinton should be handed a gift of nearly 200 delegates. The Clinton team has wrapped its case in the logic of voter disenfranchisement. "I hear all the time from people in Florida and Michigan that they want their voices heard in selecting the Democratic nominee," Clinton has said.
There is a perfectly cogent case to be made that Floridians and Michiganders deserve their say. (Some of our best friends and elderly relatives reside in those states.) The way to address this complaint is to schedule new elections so that candidates can advertise, make speeches, organize voters, distribute yard signs--you know, do "democracy," a concept Clinton seems not to understand. The DNC, if it does decide to redress Clinton's complaint, needs to do so immediately.
The New Republic hasn't endorsed any candidate in this race. Our staff is divided, like the Democratic electorate.
But neutral observers can't stand idly by as one campaign openly discusses stealing the nomination at the convention. Democrats need to recognize this potential gambit for what it is: a cynical, selfish hijacking of the democratic process. Clinton would not be laying the groundwork for this ploy unless it was potentially decisive. And the damage to Democrats (and democrats) would be profound. If Clinton is truly willing to trample so many institutions she professes to care about in pursuit of victory, she will have proven her enemies correct.
This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.