Monday, March 10, 2008

The Perils of Indecision: How Clinton Cost Herself the Race

Hillary Clinton's latest gambit is raising eyebrows across the political spectrum today. In an interview with Newsweek, Clinton explained that the electoral math:

...doesn't look bleak at all. I have a very close race with Senator Obama. There
are elected delegates, caucus delegates and superdelegates, all for different
reasons, and they're all equal in their ability to cast their vote for whomever
they choose. Even elected and caucus delegates are not required to stay with
whomever they are pledged to. This is a very carefully constructed process that
goes back years, and we're going to follow the process.

There's so much packed into that short paragraph that it's necessary to unwrap it at some length. Let's begin with the latest Clintonian coinages of elected delegates and caucus delegates. It's a clear effort to advance the notion that the primary contests are inherently more legitimate than caucuses. I've done my best to bat down these sorts of invidious distinctions before, but it seems each week the Clinton campaign rolls out a new means of adding up the votes to produce a clear edge for Hillary. Rather than recapitulate those arguments, I'll simply say that the rules vary more between some primary states than they do between some of those states and firehouse caucus states, making these groupings rather arbitrary; that any representative system will fail to produce a perfect translation of the popular vote; and that complaining about the rules only when they prove inconvenient is hardly an honorable tactic, and can only serve to undermine the legitimacy of the eventual outcome. At any rate, I suspect that caucus delegates will soon be consigned to the same fate as automatic delegates, a nomenclature that even Clinton has evidently already abandoned.

The real stunner here is Clinton's blithe assertion that pledged delegates and superdelegates are "all equal in their ability to cast their vote for whomever they choose." For the most part, she's absolutely right about that. But it's not an idle observation, it's an apparent appeal for their support. And that's a line which no recent candidate has been willing to cross - enticing delegates pledged to support a candidate to abandon that pledge. In the next breath, Clinton vows to "follow the process." There's a narrow legalism to this approach, a willful disregard for the spirit of the rules coupled to a faithful adherence to their letter.

In this case, I rather doubt Clinton is contemplating a serious run at the pledged delegates. Those folks have been carefully vetted by the campaigns, and are unlikely to prove faithless in any significant number. It is, instead, yet another effort to soften the ground for the superdelegates. She is attempting to reframe the debate. It's not that Obama will enter the convention with a triple-digit pledged delegate lead, Clinton's suggesting; rather, when 4,048 delegates convene in Denver, we shouldn't consider any of them really committed to either candidate. All the delegates are ultimately free to vote as they please. So if when the votes are cast, Obama happens to garner more support among pledged delegates and Hillary a decisive edge among the superdelegates, then that's just the way things fall out. No one overturned a pre-existing outcome - it was all up in the air until that final vote. Her caucus vs elected distinction likewise seems aimed at persuading superdelegates that if they squint hard enough, they can still see Hillary holding on to some sort of lead, and that their votes for her would really be ratifying the popular will and not overturning it.

But as easy as it is to pick on Clinton for her endless attempts to reframe the process in her own favor, I think that such an approach misses something significant in her argument. Hillary is genuinely, thoroughly distrustful of the caucus process. At the urging of her advisors, she swallowed her misgivings and campaigned in Iowa. Her defeat in Iowa left her feeling burned, and confirmed her doubts. She had, reports the Washington Post, "become allergic to caucuses, deeming them unfair." That aversion, as much as anything else, is the reason why Clinton now finds herself facing an all-but-insurmountable chasm among the convention delegates.

For that reason alone it would be important to understand the origins of Clinton's self-defeating disdain for caucuses. It's not solely an instrumental position, nor (contra the Post) is it an expression of her pique at being spurned in Iowa. The truth is more nuanced. Hillary was not willing to roil voters in those states when her nomination appeared inevitable by using her substantial clout on the DNC Rules Committee to eliminate caucuses, nor to mandate changes to their procedures, back when the primary rules were being debated and enacted. When she thought she could win in Iowa, she poured time and resources into the state, never uttering a word about her dislike for its process. In Nevada, she held her fire until the Culinary Workers endorsed her rival, and then focused her ire on the at-large caucus sites, which (somewhat ironically) were designed to remedy many of the inequities she decried. But it seems fairly clear that her distaste for the caucus system is genuine, and deeply rooted.

My problem with Clinton's present approach is that she has crossed over from critiquing a system she dislikes to attempting to subvert it. It's instructive, in this regard, to recall her response to an earlier electoral controversy. In the fall of 2000, it became clear that although Al Gore had won the popular vote, he was likely to lose narrowly in the electoral college. At the time, more than a few activists suggested a simple means of reversing the outcome - persuade three electors to switch their votes. The most prominent advocate of this solution was Mario Cuomo, who observed: "Why should [Gore] concede as long as it’s still possible that electors might change their mind, which they’re free to do?"

But Cuomo was pretty much alone among prominent Democrats. Gore himself repeatedly said that he would not encourage any electors to switch their votes. It remained, for the most part, an expression of grass-roots frustration. Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the fray just a few days after the election. On Nov. 10, she told an upstate NY audience:

I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the
people. And to me that means it's time to do away with the Electoral College and
move to the popular election of our presidents. And particularly in this
situation where we have a popular vote total that favors the Vice President, I
think it sends a message to everyone. Many of us who have run for office in this
last election have spent a lot of time telling people their votes would count.
... We need to make it clear that your vote counts and that the total votes cast
for a person running for president in our country should determine the outcome.

Let's set aside, for a moment, the delicious irony of a woman about to take her seat in the United States Senate, perhaps our system's most extreme expression of republican distrust for popular democracy, decrying the inequities of a system that stands in the way of the people's will. We'll set it aside because, as best I can tell, Clinton was perfectly sincere. Then, as now, she distrusted processes that failed to embrace the popular vote. For all that, she never took the next step. She never crossed the line and encouraged electors to switch sides. In fact, less than two weeks after her initial assault on the electoral college, she backtracked on a pledge to make its abolition the subject of her first bill, calling the idea unlikely to be successful and opting to focus instead on reforming the electoral machinery to ensure more accurate vote counting.

Back in 2000, Clinton seemed to understand that the integrity of our Democratic system is more important than the outcome of any given election. The time to challenge its legitimacy or to reform its byzantine processes is between elections, not halfway through them, or after their results appear to be distasteful. In her seven years in office, Clinton never did follow through on her initial pledge to discard the electoral college. Her work on voting reform never extended to the primary system. She never pushed the DNC to change its guidelines. She never spoke out before Iowa against the caucuses, nor did she choose to boycott the process in that state. Last week, she decided to (once again) swallow her objections and to campaign full-bore in Wyoming, even as she continued to mock the caucus system there.

This morning, The New York Times ran a remarkable piece on the dissension within the Clinton campaign:

Mrs. Clinton accepted or seemed unaware of the intense factionalism and feuding
that often paralyzed her campaign and that prevented her aides from reaching
consensus on basic questions like what states to fight in...

One pundit they quote was considerably less charitable:

It’s a legitimate question to ask: Under great pressure from two different
factions, can she make some hard decisions and move ahead? It seems to just
fester. She doesn’t seem to know how to stop it or want to stop it.

Hillary's approach to the caucus system suggests that Thurber is closer to the mark. Had she trusted her own instincts, and either pushed the DNC to change the rules or skipped Iowa entirely, she'd probably have locked up the nomination by now. If, instead, she'd followed Ickes' advice and competed vigorously in caucus states, the outcome would have been the same - smaller margins for Obama producing a Clinton lead. But by vacillating between the two approachs - by competing in Iowa and Nevada, then not in other caucus states, then again in Wyoming - Clinton has transformed her nomination from inevitable to improbable.

But it's not her failure as a manager that's ultimately to blame for her defeat. Clinton knew her own mind on the subject, and voiced her opinions as far back as 2000. Had she followed through on her misgivings, she would have won. Had she set them aside to fight the election on its own terms, she would have won. Instead, she vacillated. Not because her staff pulled her in opposite directions, and not because she was unaware of the conflict. Those were the symptoms of her indecision; we ought not mistake them for its cause. She vacillated because she did not know her own mind. And that inability to choose a position and stick to it will ultimately cost her this race.

If you've enjoyed this, please share it with other readers by clicking the 'recommend this' link. You can find more analysis on my blog. As always, I welcome comments and corrections. And thanks to all who have responded for their feedback.

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