by James M. Wall
Hillary Clinton continues to plunge ahead on what is fast becoming a death march. By not leaving graciously in the face of an obvious loss, she threatens to tarnish her own legacy and that of her husband. No question but that she has every right to demand that all the primaries be concluded before she leaves. But she is not really competing in the Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota primaries. Instead, she is running a final “change the rules campaign”.
That final campaign intends to confuse her loyal and enthusiastic supporters, especially those devoted “older white females” who have identified with her and invested so much emotional capital in her race. She makes them promises she cannot keep and may leave them feeling so bitter against Obama that they will turn away from him in the general election. Is this what Clinton really wants?
Campaigning in Florida she played the victim card, calling upon the names of heroes of the past who fought against the male establishment to gain women the right to vote. Her need to change the nomination rules is equated with the centuries-old struggles of all women to gain equal rights. This is unbecoming to a courageous and dedicated public servant. She is better than this.
Clinton deserves considerable credit for her hard fought campaign. She clearly has a future in American politics, certainly in the Senate, and maybe in a future presidential campaign after 2016. She plays the gender card to gain sympathy, but Clinton, unlike other female candidates of the past, entered her senate career with an advantage no one else is likely to have any time soon.
She is the wife of a former president, a credential that brought her money, fame and votes. It also brought her Harold Ickes, who worked for her husband in the White House and who has been around delegate fights since the 1970s.
As Clinton’s delegate guru, Harold Ickes masterminded her delegate strategy. Ickes knows the party rules; he was a principle author of major rules changes before the 1972 presidential primaries. Earlier this year, as a member of the 2008 rules committee, Ickes voted in favor of taking away delegates from Michigan and Florida because both states held primaries out of turn.
Ickes cast that vote as a member of the Clinton campaign team. When his candidate did not wrap up the nomination on Super Tuesday, Ickes changed his mind. Suddenly Clinton could use some extra delegates. And just as suddenly, Florida and Michigan delegates, and vote totals, just had to count; democracy itself demanded it.
Flashback to 1980, and there is Harold Ickes on the floor of the Democratic convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, working as Senator Ted Kennedy’s delegate manager. His goal? Prevent President Jimmy Carter’s nomination for reelection.
I have written of my own experiences in confronting Ickes at that convention. Carter had earned a majority of the delegates in the caucuses and primaries, more than enough to win the nomination. At a convention that should have launched Carter’s reelection campaign, Ickes forced a floor fight over a rule change vote to permit Carter’s pledged delegates to dishonor their pledge to Carter and vote instead, for Kennedy.
The rule, then known as the “faithful delegate” rule, required pledged delegates to honor their commitment through the first ballot. Ickes wanted the convention to “free the delegates” from that commitment. The rule change was defeated. Carter won the nomination, but many believe that the incumbent president’s image was damaged by his efforts to unify the party. He had reached out to Kennedy, and was rejected.
I have talked with a few Carter veterans of that convention who are Obama supporters. They tell me they have forgiven Kennedy now that he has crossed over to the anti-Ickes side. But the memory lingers, which is why it was not a surprise that once Ickes emerged as the Clinton delegate manager, it was only a matter of time before the party rules became his target. To paraphrase a 1945 movie tag line, Ickes is back and Clinton’s got him.
Senator Clinton’s own New York governor and a supporter, David Patterson, described her recent efforts as signs of “desperation”. It is not desperation; it is Ickes Redux. The New York Times caught some of the flavor of her “change the rules” campaign when she spoke in Florida:
I’ve heard some say that counting Florida and Michigan would be changing the rules,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I say that not counting Florida and Michigan is changing a central governing rule of this country.”
She also sought to whip up populist sentiment, telling voters in Boca Raton, where the 2000 election played out vividly, “You didn’t break a single rule, and you should not be punished for matters beyond your control.”
She argued with fervor that the nomination should be determined by popular vote. She has claimed to have the lead in the popular vote by including Florida and Michigan in her tally.
Sorry, Senator, but you are listening too much to Ickes. Democratic party rules determine the process the party follows to name its presidential candidate. To demand that the popular votes and delegates from Florida and Michigan be counted requires a change of the rules 45 seconds before the game ends.. In any baseball game, it is still three strikes and you are out, not two strikes and not four strikes. Three strikes is the rule the teams agree to play by from the sandlot to the World Series.
A majority of the national popular vote does not determine the winner of a general election presidential campaign. Electors from states make that decision based on the majority votes in individual states. Delegates pledged to specific candidates who earned a seat at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver won those seats by votes cast for their candidate in their state primaries and caucuses.
It is not the majority of the national vote total that determines the nominee. As the Clinton slogan master James Carville might have said to her, “it’s the delegates, stupid!”.
Still, Senator Clinton persists in running to win her own “change the rules primary”. Her campaign has become a hopeless and reckless effort that dimishes her and the party she tried, and failed to lead. If she insists on taking her fight to the convention, she will badly tarnish the image of Senator Clinton as an accomplished political fighter whose second place finish could be an inspiration to all future female candidates for any office, public or private.
How Obama handles Clinton in the months ahead as she faces final defeat will help determine his own public image as a leader and affect the outcome of the November general election. If Obama gives Clinton too much, like the vice presidential nomination because she wants it, he looks weak. If he is respectful of her and gracious in victory without giving away too much, he will emerge as a strong candidate. Senator Clinton has an important role to play in these final weeks before the Democratic convention. She will not be the nominee, but she can still come out a winner. It is her choice to make.