By Brigitte L. Nacos
The post-1968 reforms of the presidential selection system
were designed to break the control of party bosses over who became the nominee
of their party. By instituting binding primaries, the decision was put into the
hands of elected delegates pledged to the candidates they represented in
caucuses and primaries. Following the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and
Jimmy Carter in 1976, the Democratic Party reformed the earlier reforms by
creating unelected super delegates to their nominating conventions—party
leaders, such as members of congress and holders of state offices—who are free
to vote for the candidate of their choice. The idea was to prevent the
selection of a nominee without ties to and support of party officials. At
present, super delegates control nearly a fifth of the total delegate-pool at the
Democratic nominating convention. Given the close race between Senators Clinton
and Obama and the possibility of super delegates holding the key to the
nomination, it is hardly surprising that the rationale of super delegates is
being questioned and their roles and obligations are scrutinized.
Senator Clinton and her supporters insist that super delegates are part of the established process and supposed to make their independent decisions. Obama supporters, who believe that their candidate will have the support of more delegates elected in caucuses and primaries, want super delegates to support the winning candidate in their respective states. The super delegates were created as something like a check in the hands of the party establishment. It wouldn’t have made sense at all to establish this category of delegates with the stipulation that they vote for the candidate winning in their home states.
One can argue that the addition of non-elected super delegates was a partial return to the pre-1968 system. But the rules of the game should not be contested or changed in the midst of a heated primary competition. The Clinton side is right on this. Super delegates were created with the expectation that they would bring their own judgment to the selection of the Democratic Party’s selection process.
That said, Democrats who compete for their party’s
nomination can and do try hard to win the support of super delegates. Whether
we like it or not, lobbying super delegates is part of system. That this
lobbying involves contributions to the congressional campaigns of super
delegates by political actions committees supportive of either Senator Clinton
or Senator Obama is bad enough. That some African-American super delegates who
support Hillary Clinton receive threats is outright shocking.
The other day, I listened to Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Clinton supporter, as he spoke on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered about this problem. This is what Rep. Cleaver said according to the NPR web site:
“…some CBC members who support Hillary Clinton have received threats—not from fellow members but when they return home.
They have been told that they would face opposition in their next election if they do not support Obama, and Cleaver says some — such as John Lewis — have become the victims of ‘robo-calls.’ In Lewis' case, the calls said ‘very, very derogatory things about him.’ Cleaver, too, has experienced some troubles. ‘I had a person in my district send out a newsletter, for which I know he didn't pay, distributed primarily in the African-American community, in which he suggested that I had been paid by Sen. Clinton to support her. I don't know if there's anyone who [is African American] who hasn't taken some grief for supporting Sen. Clinton.’"
The post-1968 reforms were well intended but they resulted in a host of unintended consequences—the issues surrounding super delegates among them. Following this election year, the major parties—and particularly the Democrats—need to revisit and, I believe, correct the undemocratic and unworkable features of their respective presidential selection processes. Caucuses, for example,should be abolished from the selection process--although they have been praised as deliberative democracy at its best. In theory that is true, but the practice is far removed from the ideal as Gail Collins described in one of her recent columns.