Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jason explains why Hillary Clinton should not drop out of the Democratic primary

I know I rarely write explicitly about politics, except in the context of political movies (and I'm sure regular readers can guess my politics as a result). I don't write about politics because in general I regard politics as the opposite of sausage--I hate the end product, but love to see it getting made.

Now let me clarify the title. I don't just mean that Hillary shouldn't drop out today, or this week, or anytime before the final primary on June 3. I mean Hillary shouldn't (officially) drop out until the convention when (and if, although that "if" seems pretty darn likely) Barack Obama is officially nominated. And I should also tell you, I'm an Obama supporter. I proudly voted for him in the California primary, and hope to again in November (although I don't like the term "Obamaniac". I think "hope smoking hippie" is funnier.)

A Recent poll shows that 55% of Democrats agree with me. That's pretty much in line with polls I've seen before, with maybe just a slight decrease after Indiana and N. Carolina. So my opinion shouldn't be controversial. But maybe I've just been spending too much time reading the Fark political forums (fora?), because I feel like the only Obama supporter encouraging Clinton to stay in the race (and cringing when I hear her called "Hitlery" or "Hildabeast"). This is important to note--hoping Obama wins (and therefore, Hillary loses) is not the same as wanting Hillary to drop out. Just the same as rooting for my football team does not mean I root for them until they're up by two touchdowns late in the 4th quarter and then call for the other team to forfeit.

I should also stress that this isn't a statement of support for Hillary. I still want Barack to win, and my support for him has not waned. If anything, I find recently he's become even more God-like--in that I think he's cool, but his fan club tends to piss me off (again, maybe too much Fark).

My argument for Hillary staying in stems mainly from history. In the history of Presidential campaigns, nobody who has had as high a percentage of delegates as Hillary has ever dropped out of the race before the convention. Period. The way the media is presenting this, you'd think that a close race going all the way to the convention is unprecedented, at least recently. But about 2 minutes of Googling revealed that not only has it happened many, many times before, but it's even happened within my relative short lifetime! Granted, I was only 2 when the upstart Hollywood governor of California nearly won the nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford (who had all but committed political suicide by pardoning Richard Nixon). And by the way, that popping sound you hear is millions of Republican heads a-splodin' as they realize I've just pointed out that Hillary is the most Reagan-esque of the candidates. But the important thing to remember is that if you pressure Hillary to quit, you're not asking her to step aside and take one for the team like any reasonable party loyalist, you are asking her to become the biggest quitter in the history of Presidential elections!

The argument for Hillary quitting can be summed up as this: She should step aside for the good of the party. There are sub-points--arguments that she can't win more pledged delegates than Obama (true), that he's a stronger general-election candidate (debatable), etc. But it all basically feeds the main umbrella point, that she should step down for the good of the party. We can break this into two points: First, that the drawn out nomination fight is bad for the party (which means that 55% of Democrats want to hurt their party?). And second, that she has an obligation to sacrifice for the party. I'll tackle the second point first.

It's odd that in a country that so worships individualism and a fighting spirit, anyone would be asked to sacrifice her own self-interest for the "good of the party". I cringe whenever I hear that phrase, since I'm kinda old enough to remember Cold War propaganda about the evil, heartless Soviets who are forced to go hungry so that Communist Party bosses can get fat (nowadays I have several Russian and Chinese friends and communists aren't scary at all). As a candidate for public office, Hillary has an obligation first and foremost to herself and her constituency. Maybe after that she has an obligation to the party, but that doesn't really matter. And I'm not saying she just gets to say "F**k the party, I'm more important". I'm saying that it doesn't matter if she says that because there are other people whose duty is to the party--these people are called "superdelegates". If you want to end this thing quickly, you don't ask any candidate to be the biggest quitter ever in Presidential politics, you pressure the undeclared superdelegates to declare for Obama until he has the magic number of delegates (whether they should, and whether she should quit even then, is a different matter).

Now back to the first point for her stepping down--that the long nominating process is hurting the Democratic party. There are arguments for this--the bitter tone has damaged both of them; they're spending money and time fighting each other instead of tearing into McCain; polls show X% of Hillary supporters and Y% of Obama supporters would either not vote or vote for McCain if their candidate wasn't on the ballot in November. And there are arguments that it doesn't hurt--or even helps--the party: Voter registration is up; each candidate has full nationwide organizations (Obama even opened an office in Guam); the eventual candidate is "battle-tested", etc. I'm not astute enough to know if the net effect of all this is positive or negative. But I do know that in the RealClearPolitics poll averages, both Clinton and Obama defeat John McCain in the general election. So if either of them have been hurt by the primaries, they haven't been hurt enough to cost them the general election.

If the bloody primaries have been a negative, there's every reason to believe that as soon as they're over and both candidates make some conciliatory gestures, the poll numbers will rise. If they've been a net positive, there's every reason to believe that the benefits (organization, registration, activated base) will carry through to November. However, isn't it possible that forcing a premature end to the process could alienate some voters? Wouldn't Hillary supporters be more upset if they saw the contest was called early and their candidate didn't get to play out the whole game? Wouldn't the voters in the few remaining states be upset that their vote didn't make a difference? (ignore the fact that an individual vote never makes a difference--this is about perception, not math). It seems to me that the danger of prolonging the race is that it might bring up weaknesses in the candidate--weaknesses that are likely to be brought up by McCain in the general election. Maybe it's good to get them out early, maybe not--I tend to think that's a wash. But I don't see asking for patience as alienating anyone. Obama supporters aren't going to not vote for their guy just because he wasn't the nominee until June (or July, or August) as opposed to May. Ending the race early does have a potential of alienating some voters--maybe not many, maybe not enough to make a difference, but at least some, and that's a danger.

Now back to those superdelegates. Wil Wheaton has called them "one of the worst creations in the history of politics", and he was on TV, so you should pay attention to him. With all due respect to Mr. Wheaton (whom I usually enjoy quite a lot), I disagree. The superdelegates, as I said before, are tasked with being the protectors of the Democratic party. In extreme cases, they protect the party from takeover by a popular demagogue who doesn't truly reflect their values. This will be a bit of a tangent, but in 1992 Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot ran the most successful independent Presidential campaign in recent history (in that he won no states and no electoral votes, but received enough votes to fuck with the system). By 1996 he had created his own party, the Reform Party USA, and ran for President again, with marginally less successful results. But we now had the most successful third party since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, and their success climaxed in 1998 with the election of wrestler and "Predator" star Jesse Ventura as the governor of Minnesota. Whether or not you subscribed to their platform of economic/fiscal responsibility (which was actually too protectionist for my liking) with almost no position on social issues, it was an exciting time when it seemed the country was ripe for breaking the 2-party deadlock. Then in 2000, Perot decided he didn't want to run for President again and the party held a contested primary. Bitterly contested, as it turned out, even ending up in court before ex-Republican demagogue Pat Buchanan won the nomination, largely on appeal to social issues. He subsequently finished 4th in popular vote to Gore, Bush, and Nader, winning 0.4% of the vote (including a surprising number of elderly Jews in Palm Beach County). His finish pretty much destroyed the Reform Party, which has not run a Presidential candidate since (although they've endorsed Ron Paul in 2008), and Buchanan went back to being a Republican. Had Perot the foresight to include superdelegates in the process, perhaps his candidate, John Hagelin, would've won the nomination, kept to the platform, and the Reform Party would still be a factor today (they're still around, but trapped in the sub-Green Party basement).

That was a hell of a digression, but it's an example of why superdelegates are not a bad idea. Maybe not necessary, but not a bad idea. Now neither candidate this time around is a Pat Buchanan-type demagogue, but the superdelegates are still valuable as protectors of the party. Here their role is (hopefully) to elect the candidate who will better represent the Democratic party--both in terms of electability and in terms of representing the core Democratic values (just don't ask me what those are). And the key is that they're free to vote however they like, and decide based on whatever criteria they like. Certainly popular vote and pledged delegates are a compelling argument, especially when considering the possible revolt if they overturn the will of the people. But consider, the fact that a small number of superdelegates could overturn the "will of the people" is proof that the people are pretty evenly split. So it's a question of overturning the will of ~49% of the people or overturning the will of ~47% of the people (with ~4% going to Edwards, other candidates, or undeclared). That's not such a coup d'etat.

However, popular vote/pledged delegate count doesn't have to be the only criteria. General election chances are important, and various head-to-head polls with McCain make different cases, as to various electoral map breakdowns. Or they can vote for who they honestly believe is more representative of Democratic values--there's an old adage that it's better to lose an election than lose your party. Or they can vote based on whatever dumbass criteria they can come up with. Vote for Obama because you think he's prettier. Vote for Clinton because you like her husband. Vote for the candidate who gives you more money, promises you more money, or gives the best head (just don't let me know if that's your criteria). Bottom line, superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, because that's the rules.

Now, I've avoided talking about Florida and Michigan so far. Some time ago, I came up with a nearly free, simple, elegant solution for those delegates--so it'll never work. But since I just brought up the subject of "rules", I thought I should bring them up. I understand why the Democrats punished them in that matter, and I respect true hardliners who insist the rules must be immutable, although I happen to be a more lenient "the punishment should fit the crime" type. I don't respect those who insist the neither Florida nor Michigan should count but the superdelegates have to vote for whoever is ahead in popular votes/pledged delegates/states won/whatever. There are two rules at play here. Rule #1 says that superdelegates can vote however they want for whatever reason they want. Rule #2 says the Florida and Michigan don't get any delegates because of the calendar. I see a modicum of sense in #2, in that it was based on the assumption that it wouldn't be close enough for their delegates to make a difference. I see a lot more sense in #1, for reasons I've addressed above.

When I said at the beginning that Clinton's responsibility is to her constituency, Florida and Michigan are part of that constituency. For better or worse--and I know she's going back on her word for purely selfish reasons--she's the only player advocating on behalf of Florida and Michigan, two of the biggest swing states in the general election. I don't care if it's a coincidence of selfishness, but she happens to be on the sensible side of this issue (although she's overplayed her hand a few times trying to tilt both states further in her favor). The fact is, although Obama has the rules on his side, I see him as the one who's less willing to work for a FL/MI compromise, and that's to his detriment. I think the current punishment for FL/MI does not fit the crime, and is not a good strategy for November.

Wow, this post has really grown in the writing of it. I'll try to wrap this up. I want to go back to the fact that the RCP average has either Clinton or Obama beating McCain. This is actually pretty remarkable, the Democrats have two candidates, either of whom is favored to win. Why the heck would you want to end that situation early, and put all your eggs in one basket? And even if you wanted to put all your eggs in one basket, why would you want to put them in the less well known, untested basket? Again, I like Obama and I want him to be President, and I think he's weathered the Rev. Wright incident and other recent distractions pretty well. There's a possibility of another surprise that might completely derail his campaign. I think it's a remote possibility, but it exists. For that matter, there's always the possibility of a surprise against Clinton--probably more remote given her longer history, but still possible. So why wouldn't the Democrats want to keep a viable emergency backup candidate for as long as possible? It seems like that would be a smart strategy, and I wouldn't be surprised if enough superdelegates hold back on announcing their preference for just that reason. And (I'm now anticipating the counterargument) as long as at a certain point the Democrats make it clear that Clinton is only staying in as an emergency backup, I don't think it would distract from Obama's campaign.

So here's my advice to Clinton (some of which she's actually following, if people hear what she says rather than the battle the rabid supporters are fighting): Strike a very respectful, conciliatory tone. Talk up Obama along with yourself, take shots at McCain while pointing out how both you and Obama would be better. At a certain point, depending on the actions of the superdelegates, the nomination might move out of your reach without some superdelegates defecting. At this point, make the explicit case that it's good to have an emergency backup candidate, especially if polls show either one of you two would beat McCain. Keep your campaign office technically open, but actively stump for Obama (although mostly in an anti-McCain context). You said in the Pennsylvania debate (in response to the opening veep question) that if you don't win the nomination she'll do whatever she can to help Obama--stick to that promise! Make it absolutely clear that although you haven't closed your campaign, the nomination is absolutely Obama's to lose and unless there's a game-changing surprise, you won't attempt to steal the nomination, and you'll do whatever you can to put Obama in the best possible position to accept the nomination and beat McCain in November.

Whew! Okay, no more political posts for a long, long time.


Dadmaniac said...

Jason, one of the things I've been wondering about...and I haven't heard anybody address, centers around the argument that Hillary has "won" some of the big swing states like PA, et.al. So her folks say that she's the only one that can win that state vs. McCain BECAUSE she beat Obama there. But I have to think that once a nominee is picked, be it Obama or Clinton, Democrats for the most part will unite behind the nominee. Therefore, wouldn't it be pretty irrelevant which won the primary? Assuming that folks agree that any Democrat would be better than McBush, I would expect most of those who voted for Clinton OR Obama would vote for the eventual Democratic nominee. If you accept that logic, then the huge "machines" that both candidates have created, and the record new voter registration should make Democrats dance with glee, and Republicans quaver in their shiny wingtips. Plus, the bottom line on McCain...he's an old fart that doesn't seem to be very aware of what's going on. Didn't we just live through 8 years of the same from a younger fart?

puppymeat said...

Excellent point, dadmaniac. Fact is, success in the primaries is practically uncorrelated to success in the general election, and the RCP poll average in PA shows both Obama and Clinton beating McCain (albeit a wider margin for Clinton), and that's before the Democrats come together.

I happen to be in the camp that believes the extended primary is good for motivating new voters and building the campaign machinery. My point is that there are so many arguments stating that the long primary is good or bad that it's pretty hard to know for sure. What we can tell is that polling shows it hasn't made either candidate unelectable, in fact they both beat McCain even with the party fractured, so there's every reason to believe things will only get better by the convention.

Dadmaniac said...

I agree. It's hard to see how the Dems can lose...unless Freakonomics takes over and all those who say they aren't racist, end up being racist after all. But the primary votes in most states don't support that outcome. What bugs me most is the "spin" the candidates use to make their points. In this case, the Clintonian postulate that if Clinton can win a swing state, by some sort of logic, Obama cannot. WTF. Let's beat the pants off the Republicans. Did ya see that another solid Republican House seat went to a Dem last night in a solid Republican district? That's a bigger story than W. Virginia.