Cross posted at Plural Politics
There are few phrases that I find more trite, meaningless and irritating than “The Nuclear Option”. First of all, it’s a stupid metaphor. There are truly very, very few things in politics that would be in any way close to the equivalent of launching a nuclear weapon, no matter how strongly we may feel about the issue. Secondly, it’s so over-used that God only knows what it refers to. When I first saw this headline, I figured that the Clinton campaign has somehow found a tactical use for eliminating judicial filibusters in the Senate. But, alas, no. This ridiculous phrase has found its way to describing the next big thing that any political reporter would caption with “ZOMFG” if he were speaking in lolspeak.
(I seriously imagine to myself sometimes that political reporters live for situations where they can say, “I CAN HAS MANUFACTURED CRISIS? YAYES!”, but that’s a whole different post.)
Anyway, let’s take a little trip down the Memory Hole and see what we can make of this whole Florida and Michigan situation, and figure out where we need to point fingers.
(There’s more) […]
Now, this is a complicated situation, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t point fingers. No matter how much politics is really about compromise, conciliation and slow change, sometimes you have to know where to point the fingers in order to diagnose the problem and make the change, and that’s what this post is about. Sure, we’re nominally talking about what to do with Florida and Michigan, but this is really more about the nomination process to date and how its hodge-podge nature has really screwed things up for the party at large.
Here’s the first thing to understand about the political parties in the United States of America: they are not the government. They are not subject to the same rules, regulations and laws as governments. That they choose to follow them says a whole lot about political realities on the ground in America, but unless I’m dead wrong about this, right to vote in the decision making elections of a political party is not identical to the right to vote in a government election. They are private associations that frequently work in concert with local, state and national governments, and who work with government officials, but they are not the government nor are they formal extensions of government. As such, failure to comply with the above mentioned rules, regulations and laws can obtain moral censure in that we as a people passed those laws because we believe that they reflect the right thing to do, but it is incoherent to discuss the behaviour of political parties as being identical to that of governments.
Now, as private associations who do frequently interact with governments, and whose behaviour can have a strong impact on governments, political parties frequently work together with governments to conduct their operations, such as primaries. It’s in the interest of the parties to have a seemingly objective third party conduct their elections and in the interest of the governments in question, who are formed by members of these parties, to have a role in conducting their elections. To this extent, governments have incredible leverage on the parties. They can tell the parties, “Hey, this is when we’re conducting elections, and you should have your stuff ready to go by then.” as, otherwise, parties would have to spend lots and lots of their own money to conduct these elections. Primaries are expensive. As a result, each different state has its own arrangements with its own parties to determine when and how to conduct primary elections and caucuses. Most of the time, the governments pay for them and figure out a schedule by negotiating with the state parties, who in turn negotiate with the national parties to determine their own constraints.
How do the national parties determine their schedules? In theory, by talking to leaders of state parties, prominent NGO leaders, looking at political realities on the ground, etc. The whole thing is supposed to be a dynamic process that produces the best results for the party and the people by taking in to account the realities on the ground.
And it never does. We pretend it does, but it never, never does.
People like to pretend as if our primary process, like our government and jurisprudence were laid out in the Constitution, Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates by our Founders. Absolute bollocks. For over the first century and a half of our existence, decisions as to who wre to be candidates were made by party leaders. The leaders of the parties, state, local, national all got together at conventions and made decisions in the oh-so-familiar smoke filled rooms. Moreover, due to the lack of national communications and travel infrastructure, this was the only way it could be – there was no way to conduct timely primary elections and have the votes counted and reported back to all relevant parties in time. Infrastructure considerations aside, though, this was seen as the normal way for elections to be fought. The dominant culture of the time found it legitimate for membership in a party to consist of following the dicta of party leadership. In many ways, these party leadership positions were open to access by the rank and file, but they were also largely undemocratic by modern standards. Anyway, it was not seen as irregular or unfair for people who belonged to parties. Political parties back then were very, very powerful, and able to exert a lot of control over candidates seeking their nomination – without party support, a candidate could rarely get sufficient votes or money to run for office. This is what makes people like Sam Houston so extraordinary – when they bucked the party, it was at a time when there were very, very real consequences to it.
So, let’s fast forward from nineteenth century elections on to the twentieth. We get railroads, roads, automobiles, Pony Express, telegraph service and all kinds of things. We also get the rise of the national newspapers and yellow journalism. Suddenly, more so than ever before, there are sufficient material conditions to afford a national political consciousness. Before that, politics were largely understood as consisting of regional – people identified with the South, the Southwest, the Northeast, etc. And while they were fighting for what the national government would do, they really still saw the priorities as regional. Another really important change was the passage of The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution:
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.
This Amendment took one of the prized possessions of political bosses, control of the United States Senate, out of their hands and put it directly in the hands of the people of the states. The conditions were set for things to change, and they slowly did start to do so. Nevertheless, politics was still understood as regional and still decided by local party bosses. To cite another Democratic luminary, this is what made Harry Truman’s fight against Teddy Pendergast so heroic. No matter that he was directly elected by the people of Missouri, if Pendergast decided to oppose Truman, he was going to face an incredibly uphill battle to keep his seat.
Through all this time, nominations were still being decided by the party leaders, and people pretty much reliably turned out to vote for whomever they were told to. Of course, it’s important to realise that slowly and steadily, the amount of people who were allowed to vote was also increasing. In 1919, the United States of America decided to pay a long outstanding debt and recognise the right of women to vote. Prior to that, during the Reconstruction period of American history, the franchise was nominally extended to black people for the first time. The lived and experienced history that these previously dispossessed people brought into the political process began to change the mass political consciousness of the voting populace, planting the seeds for what happened later. Of course, at this time, due to media lockouts, lack of education, a lockout on the voices of the previously dispossessed in the histories and larger infrastructure of political discourse, what was recorded about what people thought of politics still seemed to be the unreflective narrative of America that runs through the work of people like Paul Johnson, but, as I said above, the seeds had been planted.
Fast forward through the FDR years and WWII. Now, we’re with Truman and his heroic battles against his own Democratic Party’s Southern Wing to pass civil rights legislation. At the time, bosses still controlled mostly everything. Today, it would have resulted in a primary challenge, but at the time, since the primaries were virtually meaningless, the best thing for Strom Thurmond to have done in protest was to form a new party, The Dixiecrats, and run against Truman. Somehow, facing a battle from the leaders of his own party and a re-invigorated Republican Party, Truman squeaked out a victory, but at great cost to the perceived legitimacy of the party bosses’ power. For the first time, there was national sentiment that the party bosses had made bad decisions and were not representing the wishes of the membership of the party. People began to question the unreflective conception of political parties as being trustees of their collective will, and began to call for a model of parties more analogous to today’s delegate model, in which we imagine that parties and officials are to be more responsive to the will of their voting base.
Fast forward through Ike and to Kennedy vs. Nixon. The party leadership were powerless to stop Jack Kennedy from refusing to accept their decision to go with a more experienced candidate who didn’t have the baggage of being a Catholic, and, taking advantage of the conditions that had been brewing since the nineteenth century, he began to enter primary contests to demonstrate his viability to the country at large. His epic speech in Houston, TX, should be seen as astounding not just because of the triumph it represented against religious bigotry, but also because it represented a candidate going beyond the party and using the new media of his time to directly reach people and tell them his message. The convention became a mess, with Harry Truman actually going to the floor and fighting against the nomination of Kennedy (Although, to be fair, part of this was because HST didn’t think that Kennedy was going to be strong enough on civil rights issues, and would cave to the Southern wing of the party to preserve the status quo.) The convention resulted in Kennedy winning the nomination, but only by putting The Master of The Senate, my political hero, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on the bottom of the ticket to mollify not only the Southern wing of the party, but the very party leadership and infrastructure whom Kennedy was trying to sidestep.
Continuing with my Billy Joel-esque rambling through history, we arrive at the troubled presidency of LBJ. Although he is quite possibly the most courageous figure in the history of American politics, doing what was right for civil rights, social justice and safety nets for people, he was tragically destroyed by Vietnam. The rise of the so-called New Left at the time also changed things. While the New Deal coalition had held itself together by talking only about economic empowerment and avoiding the questions of larger level discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, the willingness of a new generation to suppress these discussions was disappearing. A generation who saw on television and read in newspapers about the brutality of colonial regimes struggling for control, Communist revolutions and nationalist revolutions all over the world was unwilling and unable to tolerate what they saw as the same behaviours and conditions in their own home, particularly given the rise of the Cold War morality of people such as Niebuhr and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only were party leaders seen as holding back the kind of change necessary for justice to be achieved, but the very legitimacy of American democracy was questioned because of its willingness to ignore the suffering of black, Latino, Asian, homosexual and female populations…The great institutions of the American Republic were tarred with their complicity in perpetuating the institutional suffering of too many people to be trusted with the decisions of democracy, in their eyes.
Now, here’s 1968. This is the year that changes everything. Johnson decided not to stand for reelection, leaving the path open for his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Or so the Hump thought. He was seen as the successor to Johnson’s failed Vietnam policy, for better or for worse, and faced a challenge from Robert Kennedy for the nomination of the party. It is important to note that this was the first presidential election in American history in which the people who voted in the primaries felt that their vote should have decided the nomination. Kennedy’s death turned into a race between the Hump and Gene McCarthy, who was running on a strongly anti-Vietnam platform. When the Convention convened and the nomination was given to Hump instead of McCarthy, there were riots on the streets of Chicago. I cannot stress enough the reversal of power that this was: in times past, the parties told the people what to do, and now, for the first time, the people were rioting because the party didn’t do as they were told. This is as massive a shift in political consciousness as the presidencies of Lincoln and FDR were – American politics has been massively changed since.
Anyway, as we all know, Hump fought against Nixon and a fractured Democratic Party, and lost. Now, 1972. George McGovern had been put in charge of a commission to determine what the nomination process should look like, and proclaimed that the only fair and legitimate means for the nomination to be decided was by following and accepting the results of the primary elections. He then managed to beat out Muskie for the nomination, only to be defeated in the general election by the continued fracturing of the Democratic Party and a completely predictable backlash. The very bosses and leaders who had enjoyed a lifetime of being courted and feted for their approval threw a temper tantrum and refused to work for a candidate in whose selection they had no hand. A fun counter-factual game is to go back and think about what the 1972 election would have looked like had the labour unions, local bosses and state bosses forced George Wallace to play ball and not run on a segregationist platform, and had they banded the New Deal Coalition together once again to defeat the odious Nixon.
1976 was an odd year all around the board. The coalition was fraying and confidence in the government was at an all time low, but this was really the first election in which a fully cycle was conducted according to the rules of McGovern’s ’72 reforms. No one really knew how to play by these rules, but Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (another man who is one of my political heroes) sw the strategic and tactical possibilities of no longer having to kowtow to leaders like Hoffa, and ran his presidential campaign based purely on the primaries and caucuses calendar. At this point, people still hadn’t developed a full culture of primaries like we have today, so his unexpected second place finish in Iowa, the first nominating contest, and then his subsequent boost in New Hampshire, the second contest, made him a national figure and set the full precedent for IA and NH being so prominent in our primary culture. Please note that this significance is only two years older than the author of this post. (While NH had been decisive in previous primaries, it had only knocked out candidates before, and never launched one into national prominence as it did with Carter.) 1976 is the year in which the practice of campaigning in IA and NH, two states which anyone could theoretically win because of the cheap media costs and small populations, began.
And of course, people love nothing more than they love tradition. 1980 was the first time that a Democratic candidate for president had faced a primary challenge within his own party, and once again, McGovern’s rules cursed the Democratic nominee. Because none of the leadership of the party had any emotional investment in the re-election of Carter, and wanted the nominee to be Edward Kennedy, instead, an even more fractured Democratic Party went into the elections and got whomped. This was around the time that media figures began talking about about the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire as decisive contests, and a goalpost that any candidate had to get past in order to be taken seriously. When the media produced a new metric, all the donors and activists began following it.
Of course, we weren’t through with reforms to the primary system. The Republicans, with a much more homogeneous coalition than the Democrats, were able to handle a simple primary system in which the winner of one state took all the delegates and not have to worry about creating incentives for party leaders to get involved in the race. We Democrats, of course, needed more. So once again, we had a commission, this time by Jim Hunt of NC, and various luminaries and leaders were given an incentive to support the candidates by making them voting delegates to the nominating convention. And so it has been to date, with these new superdelegates being a so called final check to a seemingly unelectable candidate getting the nomination.
Of course, we haven’t had a strongly contested nomination contest since then till now, and the whole myth of Iowa and New Hampshire going first for some transcendent reason has become a known fact in our political mythology. This is due to any number of things, such as the massive p.r. blitz that these states conduct on their own behalf, media enforcement of this pablum and the forced pandering that candidates have had to engage in to these states in order for their candidacies to be viable. I am no fan of Senator John McCain, but his 2000 refusal to take the ethanol pledge in Iowa was one of the boldest acts of a political candidate in years. The fact that these states, with populations and interests that are in no way statistically representative of the populations and needs of the rest of the country, go first has provided a massive distortion in the policy platforms of the parties and way in which the campaigns are conducted.
In his 2007 book, Terry McAuliffe recounts that in 2000, Michigan, a state in desperate need of some kind of national attention, attempted to shift their primary calendar to get more prominence and attention. Mac took every step in his power to prevent that from happening, as the super-duper entitled people of New Hampshire and Iowa threatened to move their all important primaries up and cause electoral chaos, because the media would still focus on the all important IA Caucus and NH primary, and their whole gameplan would go up in smoke.
There are many, many ways in which Iowa and New Hampshire going first are bad for America and bad for the parties. The first is that they create a long term incentive for any politician with more ambition to pander to the interests of these two states, e.g., ethanol, to the detriment of the rest of the country, and even the world. Secondly, and more importantly, because they always go first and virtually decide the nomination, there are any number of people in this country who have absolutely no say in who the nominee of their party will be. If we accept as a postulate of political philosophy the reversal of 1968, and that the party should do what the people tell them, we are acting hypocritically when we prevent millions of Americans from having a say in these contests. Finally, and most importantly, we are decreasing the perceived legitimacy of the nomination, the party and the government in the eyes of all Americans when they know that a wildly unrepresentative sample of the U.S. population, who somewhat coincidentally resemble the most privileged and pandered to people in this country, are the ones who are still making all the decisions for the rest of us, who have to play ball. As I wrote in one of my earliest posts on the site, perceived legitimacy is the ballgame. The more people vote, the better off we are.
This is actually one of the great things about this primary. States in which the Democratic parties have been anaemic for decades are getting a massive influx of activism, trained staffers cash and enthusiasm because these voters, for the first time, are getting a chance to speak and be heard. As The Prospect reports:
Despite a deepening despair among Democrats that the never-ending primary season is severely damaging the eventual nominee, Dan Parker, chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, is almost gleeful about what is happening in his state in advance of next week’s presidential primary. “Anybody who tells you different doesn’t know anything about politics,” he said, “This is a good thing for the Indiana Democratic Party.”
Parker, a Hillary Clinton supporter, is doing everything he can to help her win on Tuesday. But whether she pulls it off or not, Parker and his party are already reaping big rewards in a state that is closely divided between the two parties below the presidential level. No one is predicting that the Democratic nominee will beat John McCain in Indiana in November, but down the ballot, where the races will be much closer, the infusion of Democratic money, energy, and organizing infrastructure could pay great dividends this fall and beyond.
“Close to a million people are going to be voting on Tuesday, that’s a good thing” says Parker.
Together, the Clinton and Obama campaigns have opened 50 field offices across the state, trained thousands of volunteers, and spent millions of dollars. And while Parker admits that the presidential primary is currently overshadowing the races for governor, Congress, and the state legislature, he emphatically declares the primary “a net plus.”
Minority state parties — red state Democrats and blue state Republicans — are fond of complaining that they would be more successful if the national parties and the national candidates devoted more time, attention and money to them. This primary is certainly delivering all three in vast amounts.
Of course, the stakes increase with every passing contest, and partisans of each candidate become more and more polarised, but on the whole, it’s a good thing that we’ve gone this long.
Now, that we’ve taken this long excursus into the history of primaries in America, let’s get back to what started this whole thing, which is Florida and Michigan.
Back in 2007, a whole bunch of states had had enough of being left out, for all the reasons that I’ve mentioned above, decided that they were sick and tired of being displaced by a bunch of flannel shirt wearing rednecks and exurban Red Sox fans, and moved their primary calendars up. Both states knew exactly what they were doing, and what the consequences would be. Thinking that they could fight Governor Dean with ease, since he was a Washington outsider with tenuous relations with party bigwigs, they thought that this would be a good time to flex their muscles and force some kind of primary reform.
Unfortunately for them, the urgent issue of primary reform got lost in the structural mechanics of who runs the party. Iowa and New Hampshire threw their now famous temper tantrums and threatened to move to 2007 – they would go first no matter what. Dean had to reassert leadership and control of the party, no matter that he most likely agreed with the FL and MI delegations that the privileging of IA and NH is unfair, and so the compromise involved Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina going first. The inclusion of the latter two states was meant to offer some consolation to advocates of reform while still preserving the privilege of Iowa and New Hampshire, at least for this time. In Florida and Michigan, the governors, state legislators, both political parties and Congressional delegations saw what the rules were and chose to break them, knowing full well what the consequences would be.
I would have been more sympathetic to the states in question had it been the case that the party in control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion ramrodded it through the legislatures in order to screw the other party, but as I said earlier, this was done in both states with the full consent of all concerned parties. If you want to figure out who’s responsible for disenfranchising the people of these states, look no further than the state capitals of both Florida and Michigan, where Crist and Granholm both thought that they could force the hands of the Democratic National Committee. Personally, I am glad that the Democratic Party is standing firm on this, and refusing to cave.
Frankly, it’s not in the hands of Dean, anyway. At this point, it’s up to the Credentials Committee at the Convention to try and decide what to do with these delegations.
What makes the Clinton insistence on their seating so unfair is the sum of the fact that they broke the rules, and because the breaking of these rules, all the candidates agreed not to campaign in Florida or Michigan. In Michigan, Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot. So it’s not just that the candidates should stand in support of the party chairman in enforcing the rules, it’s that the very contests themselves were skewed. At this point, to give them full voting rights at the convention would not be an act of enfranchising the peoples of Florida and Michigan, it would be to disenfranchise and punish the peoples of the states who chose to play by the rules.
I don’t doubt that the Clinton campaign is genuinely worried about the Democratic Party being responsible for not counting the votes of African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, etc. from two genuinely swing states, but the proper expression of that concern would have been for them to use their considerable political muscle, which, as the frontrunner at the time, they had plenty of, to lean on Florida and Michigan to follow the rules with the promise that they would force a new primary calendar for the next time. Given that a victorious campaign always gets to nominate the new DNC chairman, this is a promise that they could have easily made. Similarly, they could have leaned on Iowa and New Hampshire to give up their incredibly undeserved privilege. What they are doing now, rather than being an act of enfranchisement of dispossessed peoples, is nothing more than an attempt to make an end run around the very rules to which they agreed early on because they are losing. This is really the only shot that they have left in their arsenal.
Frankly, I can see how it’s compelling. In some ways, the ads write themselves. Facing massive defection amongst the black communities if they’re seen as robbing a black man of the nomination, they could easily spin this as the Democratic Party of 2008 fighting for the rights of black people who’d lost it in 2000 to vote. And it’s a great narrative, and a cooperative Obama could really seal the deal for them.
Nonetheless, even if that genuinely is their intention, it still just doesn’t pass the smell test. As I mentioned earlier, so far as I know, there is no Constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in a primary and have that vote counted. The DNC is not robbing people of their votes the way that Southerners did with literacy tests – this is straight up a case of a private association deciding to enforce its rules on dissidents.