Friday, February 22, 2008

Parsing McCain

I'll admit it (even at the price of being flamed in the comments section). When I tuned in to his press conference this morning, I wanted McCain to put this story to rest. Over the past decade, we've had enough scandal, enough personal misconduct, enough betrayal of the public interest to last a lifetime. Though I had my doubts about the sourcing of the story, its broad contours seemed to ring true. And that saddened me. John McCain has done heroic and noble things in his life, and has been a rare advocate for cleaner government on the other side of the aisle. Whatever my substantive disagreements with the man, and they are legion, it seems a shame to see his career founder on this sort of a scandal. I would far rather have the Democratic nominee prevail, as I believe he will, on the basis of the popular support for his policies than popular opprobrium for his rival. For all his flaws, McCain's not Rudy or Romney - I just can't summon the same schadenfreude.

But it didn't take very long for McCain to dig himself a deeper hole. His strategy appeared to be to deny, deny, and deny. In fact, he denied everything. Whatever the premise of his questioner, McCain appeared determined to deny it. Let's go to the transcript:

Q: But you never tried to dissuade [The New York Times]from running the story in any fashion?
SENATOR MCCAIN: No. In fact, I never spoke directly to them.
Except, as McCain himself admitted later on, for his direct call to the Executive Editor. But even then, he said,

I was not trying to dissuade him from -- in any way from doing the story.

Only, if that's true, it's only in the narrowest possible sense. McCain's aides and advisors have spent the last several months trying to dissuade a variety of media outlets from running versions of this story, at his behest. He hired a high-priced lawyer to further those efforts. So why on earth would McCain deny trying to suppress a story he alleges to be scurrilous, when every reporter in the room knows that's exactly what he did? We'll get there.

Up next, the question of what he told the FCC about television station ownership back in 2000. I'll leave debunking this one to Paul Kiel. Another denial that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

McCain went on to deny, twice, that he had ever discussed with former aide John Weaver a meeting that Weaver had in 1999 with Vicki Iseman. Perhaps they never directly discussed it. But McCain crossed a line when he was asked if Weaver had told him he was talking to the Times, and he said "No." The problem is that Weaver spent the day telling any journalist who would listen that he had been in constant touch with the campaign ("including holidays — Christmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day — not one day has gone by when I haven't talked to the campaign") and in periodic contact with Senator, and that he e-mailed the three senior staffers on the campaign his statement as he sent it to the Times. And McCain didn't know about it until he read the story? C'mon.

But the real problem with the press conference, and I suspect, the explanation for all the other denials, was his account of his relationship with Vicki Iseman. Let me say this. I suspect that if four reporters for The New York Times are convinced that McCain was engaging in an extra-marital affair, they're probably right. But at the very least, I assume that Iseman enjoyed an unusual degree of intimacy with the senator, something that drew the swirling rumors and innuendo. Perhaps, I thought, we're going to hear a (relatively) benign explanation for that. That the aging senator was flattered by the attentions of the pretty blonde woman. That it was more father-daughter than May-December. Who knows?

The whole point of the press conference, remember, was to definitively dispel the rumors. So when McCain got the question for which he'd been waiting, the one he'd called the press conference in order to field, the exchange went like this:

Q Senator, can you describe your relationship with Vicki Iseman?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Mm-hmm. I -- (we’re ?) friends, seen her on occasions, particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the committee. I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don’t. And I consider her a friend.

Q But do you feel like, in terms of your relationship with lobbyists in general, you were closer to her than with others?

SENATOR MCCAIN: No. No, I have many friends who represent various interests ranging, from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee, and I had meetings with hundreds of them and various interests....
Whoah. A lobbyist, just like any other? Is he kidding? We're supposed to believe that Vicki Iseman is precisely like, say, Dan Mattoon? That McCain was no closer to her than to any other lobbyist; that they were just friends who bumped into each other around town from time to time?

But wait, there's more. Reporters circled back for a second bite at the apple:

Q Are you still in touch with Ms. Iseman in any way?


Q With Vicki Iseman. When was the last time you --

SENATOR MCCAIN: I have not, obviously, because I haven’t been in Washington. No, not in some time.
Really, it's too much. This thing's been hovering over his head for two months, threatening to derail his campaign, and he can't recall when he last saw the woman? And the reason he hasn't seen her is that he's been traveling too much, and hasn't spent enough time in DC?

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. As best I can piece this together, we saw McCain's famous temper this morning. His integrity, his honor - the things about which he cares most - were challenged, and by gum, he was going to defend them. No apologies. No (actual) explanations. Everything, everything the Times had written was wrong. Even the things that were right. Perhaps, especially the things that were actually right.

I don't know what happened between McCain and Iseman. It's entirely possible that no one, other than the two of them, actually does. But I do know that McCain's explanation doesn't wash. He can't put this one behind him simply by asserting that he's JOHN MCCAIN, a living embodiment of honor and integrity, and so we all have to trust him. Sooner or later, he's going to have to provide a more complete explanation of what happened between himself and Iseman, who was clearly more to him than just another lobbyist, just another friendly face at cocktail parties and rubber-chicked dinners. Until he gives that explanation - and, if necessary, an apology - this is going to dog him. All his press conference did today was confirm for all who cared to listen that the man is not telling the truth. And for a senator who runs on integrity, I can't think of anything more damaging.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Part Two: The Three Commandments

This is the second half of a two-part post. In the first post, I took stock of the race. This post is my humble attempt to read the tea leaves, and discern where we're headed.


There's an old truism about presidential candidates: they never give up, they just run out of money. By that measure, we're a long way from the finish line. The Obama campaign has said it's presently pulling in more than $1 million each day, and just revised its January haul up to $36 million. (My own guess is that they'll handily top that amount in February, but that David Plouffe has belatedly realized it's not wise to goad Hillary's supporters into donating ever more to her campaign by trumpeting his daily totals.) The Clinton folks were proud to announce that in the fifteen days since Super Tuesday, they've pulled in $15 million. So both campaigns will be amply funded through March 4, and likely well beyond.

That said, I'll stand by my earlier prognostication. In making the case for her continued viability, Hillary wrote off the contests in February, and placed her chips on the March 4 contests. There's a general consensus in the party that she ought to have a fair crack at those elections, a final chance to prove that she can turn the race around. When the results from the four March 4 states are tallied and the delegate hauls projected, it won't take CNN's nifty touch-screen or any complicated math to explain to voters where the race stands. Shortly thereafter, we'll see the superdelegates begin to close ranks around Obama, in an effort to build consensus and shift the focus to the general election.

So the question that concerns me this morning is this: What sort of a campaign will unfold over the next two weeks, as Hillary prepares to make her final stand? We already have some inkling that the answer will be, "Increasingly ugly."

There are, if you will, three commandments that ought to be equally binding on both candidates as the race enters its final phase.

Thou Shalt Not Slander:

It's already apparent that this race is taking a dive into increasingly negative territory. Clinton's advisers couldn't wait to tell reporters that she'll adopt "a tougher line" in an effort to redefine her rival. Obama, meanwhile, intends to harp on Clinton's support for free trade. That's fine, even healthy. I happen to believe that this vigorous contest for the nomination has proven, well, invigorating for the Democratic Party. Voters are listening to the candidates debate the issues, donating and volunteering in record-shattering numbers, and turning out to vote at rates rarely seen. The more the candidates engage with each other, the more their supporters engage with the process.

But that's only true to the extent that the contrasts being drawn are truthful. When a candidate stoops to distorting a rival's record, it harms the attacker's credibility, the victim's approval ratings, and the party's chances in November. We've seen some of this already. Obama is way out of line when his mailers claim that Hillary thought NAFTA had provided a "boon," placing quotes around the word. The Clintons were wrong to suggest that Obama was a Reagan fan, much less that he supported his policies. And we're going to see more of it, simply because these attacks tend to work. No correction ever erases the damage done by the initial claim. This primary race ought to be won on the merits. Both candidates have the chance to draw fair, meaningful contrasts based solely on the public record. Let's hope they do.

Thou Shalt Not Challenge the Legitimacy of the Process:

When the party chooses its nominee, it is vital that all Americans believe that the process used to select the candidate was fair and transparent. As I've noted, there are abundant flaws with the process. The important thing, for this cycle, is that we recognize that it's the only process that we've got. It's well worth revising for future cycles, but challenging the rules half-way through the game is corrosive.

The Obama campaign isn't blameless here. Various campaign advisers have suggested that the superdelegates ought to follow the expressed will of voters in their districts, their states, or the nation. There's a fine line between making a case to superdelegates that they ought to vote for Obama, and suggesting that a failure to vote for the man constitutes a perversion of the process, and the campaign has occasionally strayed across it.

That said, there's simply no question that the prime offender here is the Clinton campaign. The candidate herself has challenged the legitimacy of the caucus results. Of the scheduling rules and related penalties approved by the DNC. Of Obama's victories in states with large black populations, or in those which routinely vote for Republicans. Her surrogates and supporters are now suggesting that we might attempt to discern the will of only those voters who self-identify as Democrats. This is pernicious, it's destructive, and it's wrong. It also happens to be petty, and I suspect that, far from sustaining the rational for her candidacy, it has undermined her credibility with large segments of the electorate.

We started this primary process with a badly-flawed set of rules, but that's how it is. Both candidates need to refrain from challenging the rules; the most these attacks can accomplish is tainting the victory of the eventual nominee.

Thou Shalt Not Use Race or Gender as a Wedge:

Black voters (who overwhelmingly support Democrats) and women (who trend more modestly Democratic, but compose more than half of all voters) are the twin pillars on which the party is built. Alienate either constituency, and the prospects for a win in November grow decidedly gloomy.

In an ideal world, both candidates would make their appeal to the voters by transcending identity politics. But we don't live in that world. Obama's dominance among black voters is a political phenomenon, virtually without precedent, and it presents a terrible temptation to the Clinton campaign. Without hope or prospect of making inroads among African Americans, there's very little to restrain the Clintons from exploiting the racial divide that afflicts our nation, other than their own moral judgment. The dynamics, as it happens, work differently with gender. Obama needs to tread very carefully around the issue, as he woos women to the polls, but he enjoys a healthy lead among male voters that has propelled him to many of his victories. Here, it's more of a positive commandment than a negative injunction - Obama must do more than he already has to reach out to women voters, particularly those left feeling embittered by Hillary's loss, and convince them that he can be as effective an advocate for the issues they care about as she has been.

I suspect that, after South Carolina, the Clinton campaign resolved not to raise the issue of race explicitly. But there's no question that it's still being deployed with regularity on the ground level, particularly in states with substantial Hispanic populations. The key example is Texas, where the Clinton campaign has been decrying the primary system as stacked against Hispanic voters in favor of large, urban districts - a construction of the issue that suggests black and brown voters are in a zero-sum game, and that Hispanics are losing their fair share of the delegates to African Americans. That's a particularly shameful argument to make, in that it violates both the second and third of our commandments.

Without temptation, commandments would be unnecessary. But both candidates need to resist temptation: Obama, the temptation to take women for granted, and Clinton, the temptation to write off black voters and (however subtly) exploit racial divisions. Let's hope they're equal to the challenge.

Arbiters of the Rules:

We needn't rely on goodwill or luck to enforce these three commandments. Both candidates, for the moment, are beholden to the Democratic establishment for support. Without superdelegates, neither can realistically win the nomination. We've already seen efforts among the uncommitted superdelegates to agree upon a common metric for determining the winner. I'd like to see those efforts expanded to include some clear ground rules about how the contest ought to be waged.

And then there's the invisible man - DNC Chair Howard Dean. The candidates are supposed to be focused on winning the nomination; Dean is supposed to have the interests of the party at heart. He should be taking forceful action to ensure that the candidates behave, and that their campaigns are making the party stronger, and not tearing it apart. There's a chance here to keep this primary relatively clean, and to make it the most remarkable and effective organizing tool we've ever seen. Let's not blow it.

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

This is a two-part post. In the first half, I'll try to give a decent overview of how the contest stands this morning. In the second, I'll offer my thoughts on what's likely to happen over the next few weeks.

A week ago, I offered a conservative estimate that by this morning, Obama's pledged-delegate lead would stand at 152. Last night, he turned in impressive victories in Hawaii (projected at 14-6) and Wisconsin (projected at 43-31). Add those preliminary results to the 138-delegate lead his campaign presently claims, and the gap swells to 158 pledged delegates.

There are 981 pledged delegates remaining (plus seven votes from Democrats Abroad that will be announced "shortly.") To overtake Obama, Hillary now needs to win 570 of them, or 58%. Let me be blunt: that won't happen. To take 58% of the delegates against a candidate who dominates heavily-black districts, Hillary would need to take better than 60% of the remaining votes. She'd need to clean up in the caucuses in Wyoming, Guam, and Puerto Rico. She'd have to win big in states with large black populations like Mississippi and North Carolina, and in rural states like Montana and North Dakota. And every time she fails to win 58% of the delegates, the bar gets moved a notch higher.

So I'll repeat my conclusion from a week ago - for all intents and purposes, the race for pledged delegates is over. Done. Finished. At this point, it's not even realistic for Hillary to believe she can tighten the margin to the point where its significance is questionable. So where does that leave her on this Wednesday morning?

Well, she still holds a lead among the superdelegates. For the first six weeks of the year, Hillary and Obama gained endorsements at a roughly equal rate. After routing Hillary in the Potomac Primary, Obama managed to cut Hillary's lead from about 100 down to about 80, where it's stood for the past week. Despite all the gloomy predictions, Hillary's support among the superdelegates remains impressively strong. Relatively few have rescinded their endorsements, and she's still gaining new backers at a decent clip. The problem she faces is that more than a few of her backers have made it clear that although they may be prepared to tip a genuinely split convention in her direction, they don't intend to overturn a clear majority of pledged delegates. So even holding on to that lead, and building it back up to the point where it could tip the convention in her favor, seems unlikely to be enough unless she can make the case for a split result.

That brings us to the popular vote. Obama tacked on 194,000 votes to his margin there last night, putting his total lead a hair over 900,000. Even counting Michigan and Florida, Hillary trails by almost 300,000 votes. It's possible that she could erase that smaller margin in two weeks, but any lead is likely to be fleeting, given the remaining contests. In fact, it seems most probable at this juncture that Obama will ultimately lead in the popular vote no matter how one cares to tally it - with or without caucus states, with or without Florida and Michigan.

There's a new and pernicious argument floating around the blogosphere, to the effect that Obama has been winning the popular vote on the strength of his support from independent and Republican voters, and that the appropriate method of measuring victory is to count only the votes of Democrats. On its surface, that's not an entirely unreasonable claim - the Call to Convention itself makes clear that the Democratic Party would prefer if only those who choose to register with the party were able to cast ballots. But there are three problems with this argument. First, it's yet another effort to change the rules in the middle of the contest. Various state laws mandate access to the polls for those not registered as Democrats, and the candidates have campaigned accordingly. This would have been a different race if the rules stated, at the outset, that only registered Democrats counted. But more importantly, these zealots rely upon exit polls to assemble their tally, which leads to two related problems. Exit polls ask about partisan identification, not registration - a significant percentage of respondents will offer an answer that reflects their present commitments, and not the formal record of their registration. So you'll find registered independents who tell the pollsters they're Democrats, and (far more commonly) registered Democrats who tell the pollsters they're independents. To illustrate: Hillary's home state of New York held a closed primary, meaning that only voters formally registered as Democrats participated. But only 87% of those registered Democrats self-identified as Democrats when approached by the exit pollsters. Even more disturbingly, we're talking about polls here, not formal tallies. They include margins of error, like all surveys - and in this case, the size of those margins renders any putative lead insignificant. Not to mention that their samples may not be representative, nor their models accurate. That's why we go to the trouble and expense of holding elections, instead of just asking Gallup or Edison to tell us who's going to win.

Hillary is now trying to make a case using a hybrid of these various arguments. She has a new site up this morning, that argues that the proper measure of this race is how close a candidate is to reaching 2,208 delegates. That's counting Michigan and Florida, and adding pledged delegates to superdelegates. The site overstates its case - for fun, let's choose a few examples. There are not "over 1000 delegates at stake" in the remaining contests - either superdelegates are free to ignore the results of the elections in their own states, or they're not "at stake" in the remaining elections, and fewer than a thousand delegates remain. You can't have it both ways. When the site claims that "neither candidate can secure the nomination without automatic delegates," it's engaging in the same (reasonable) projections that it slams the Obama camp for making; technically, an Obama sweep could still deliver the nomination outright. The claim that Hillary wasn't expected to win the states where she prevailed (Her victory in Oklahoma was "not expected"? In the only state where Obama didn't advertise because he rated his chances too low?) is risible. And though the site claims boldly that "there is a clear path to an overall delegate majority," it doesn't bother to detail it. That's because the clear path involves Obama winning a decent majority of pledged delegates, and Hillary relying on a lopsided vote among the superdelegates. For all its bluster, the Clinton campaign would rather not trumpet that fact. But the basic claims made by the site are these:
1) There are two kinds of contests: "primaries where millions vote" and "caucuses where thousands vote."
2) Florida and Michigan deserve to be counted.
3) Superdelegates have every right to provide the critical margin at the convention.

We'll see whether any of those arguments gain significant traction. Certainly, they'll be discussed and debated - this race has propelled propelled cable news ratings into the stratosphere, and like play-by-play announcers late in the fourth quarter, the anchors and the pundits will start pulling out obscure precedents, dusting off improbable comebacks, and constructing unlikely scenarios to keep their viewers engaged. The problem is that, at the end of the day, the only audience that really matters at this point in the race is the superdelegates. And to date, every shred of public evidence suggests a profound reluctance even among many of Hillary's current supporters to be seen as overturning the popular will - and that's not counting the hundreds who remain on the sidelines.

Where does that leave the race? More in the second half of this post.

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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TPM Muckrakers Win Polk Award!

I want to congratulate Josh Marshall on his receipt of the George Polk Award for Legal Reporting. The Polk Awards are among journalism's most prestigious prizes, and have a well-deserved reputation for honoring good reporting, wherever it may be found.

From the citation:
His site,, led the news media coverage of the
politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country.
Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall (with
staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) connected the dots and found
a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the
Bush Administration's bidding.

Congratulations to the entire TPM Muckraker crew.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Convention Math: What Adds Up to Legitimacy?

"It would be a problem for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided," Speaker Nancy Pelosi piously intoned last week. Well, sure, Madame Speaker - but which public? And how shall we know what it has decided?

There are three paradoxes that lie at the crux of the nominating process, and which together have produced most of the quirks that have resulted in so much hand-wringing (and more than a few others that have thus far passed unnoticed). The first of these is that it is a partisan process - by its very definition, restricted to a subset of the whole - that aspires to democratic legitimacy. The second is that it aims to produce a single national result, but by means of separate processes in individual states. And the third is our nation's republican creed of representative democracy, which grants primacy to the public interest yet relies upon an elite few to discern it.

Let's consider how these three paradoxes come to bear on the arguments being advanced by the two campaigns in their quest to convince delegates that they, and they alone, have achieved a mandate for the nomination.

The Popular Vote:

The argument here is simple and intuitive. In most elections, the candidate who garners the greatest number of votes, wins. That seems eminently fair. Democrats groused about the legitimacy of President Bush's mandate in 2000, when he failed to carry the popular vote, further embedding the argument in the Democratic pysche. So why not simply tally up all the votes, and then pressue the delegates to follow the people's clearly expressed will?

The Problems

Actually, it's not that simple. Consider the first of our paradoxes, the partisan nature of the process. Are we interested in the will of all voters who will be eligible to cast ballots in November? Clearly not. The nominating process is a partisan affair, and so, contra Speaker Pelosi, "the public" is not making this decision. Advocates of the popular vote are actually championing a curious beast called "the Democratic primary electorate," which is neither fish nor fowl. Consider this: the primary system enfranchises quite a few voters who will not be eligible to vote in November, including voters in American territories and commonwealths such as American Samoa and Puerto Rico. It allows Democrats living abroad to choose between voting with Democrats Abroad and voting via absentee ballot in their state elections. But at the same time, a huge portion of the overall electorate is excluded. Voters can only cast ballots if they are registered as Democrats. Or if they switch their registration to become Democrats. Or if they are unaffiliated, but not if they are enrolled in another party. Or as long as they don't vote in the other party's elections. It's a mess.

That brings us to the second paradox, federalism. The rules, it turns out, vary state by state. We are left to tally incommensurate sums. The total number of Democratic votes in one state, the total number of all votes in the other. Even states that share formal rules may introduce other variables. Are they voting on the same day? Is there a Republican primary that day, or nothing else to siphon off independents? Is the contest held in January or May, and have voters' preferences changed in the interim? And that's before we broach the subject of caucuses. Several states produced no reliable count of the popular vote. Are they to be disenfranchised? The rules of the caucuses themselves vary widely, some resembling elections and others town meetings, but they're generally more restrictive than those used in primary elections. So, conversely, would counting the individual votes cast at caucuses serve to corrupt the tally of the popular vote?

The popular vote turns out to be a chimera, a strange creature composed of diverse tallies from disparate processes, and missing several vital parts. So where does that leave us?

The Pledged Delegates:

If the popular vote had the advantage of intuitive legitimacy, the pledged delegate tally has the virtue of internal consistency. The voters award the delegates, and the delegates award the nomination. It seems simple enough, for all that no one seems to understand the messy mechanics. If delegates are the currency of the convention, then the pledged delegates, the ones we the public elected (er, sort of) ought to make the decision. Right?

The Problems:

I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn it's not that straightforward (and, of course, since pledged delegates are selected through the processes detailed above, we start with many of the same flaws). Let's begin this time with the third paradox, representative democracy. It's so familiar that it may be difficult to step back, and see what a strange process it really is. Since the Warren Court, Americans have understood our Constitution to include a guarantee of "One man, one vote." In a series of decisions beginning in 1964 and ending in 1989, the Supreme Court declared that at every level of government (save the United States Senate) electoral districts, as nearly as practicable, must be drawn to be roughly equal in population, so that every vote is worth about as much as any other. The primaries, as extra-constitutional processes, are entirely exempt from this requirement. As a practical matter, that means that some votes are worth more than others. Much more. State parties are given the choice of four formulas for allocating a block of their pledged delegates among their congressional districts. Only two of the four give any weight at all to population, but all four place great weight on the number of votes cast for Democratic candidates in recent elections. So in Illinois,, for example, voters in some districts elect as many as 8 pledged delegates, and voters in others as few as 4. And, as if the Democratic Party can't quite decide which way is fairest, we apportion the pledged delegates based on the results as calculated at two separate levels. A good chunk of them are split among the candidates based on statewide tallies, the bulk based on the district vote. There are good arguments in favor of either approach, but I have yet to hear a compelling defense of splitting the difference.

That much has been widely reported. Less appreciated is the result of our second paradox, federalism. Not only, it turns out, are the pledged delegates not apportioned among the districts by population, neither are they apportioned by population among the states. This gets complicated; read the Call to Convention if you care about the gory details. Suffice it to say, it's a weird amalgam of each state's electoral vote, the number of votes for the Democrats in the last three presidential elections, and how late in the calendar year the contest is held. That's right - move your state's primary after May 1, and you could score 30% more base delegates. It's a fantastic system. So the next time you hear someone proclaim that the votes of all the states matter equally, snicker. The truth is, the Democratic Call to Convention resembles nothing so much as our tax code - an accretion of complicated provisions designed to achieve a diverse range of policy objectives, that surpasseth all understanding.

And that brings us to the paradox of partisanship. In this case, it's a reminder that even the Democratic Party is itself a hodgepodge of different groups, each with its own agenda. Once again, we find the familiar tension between the particular and the general. So far, we've only discussed how the pledged delegates are allocated among the various presidential contenders. But there's another stage to this process: the choice of the delegates themselves. And given that, in most cases, there's nothing to bind them to follow their pledge once they arrive on the convention floor, it's a non-trivial matter. A good chunk of the pledged delegate slots are reserved for elected officials and party leaders. Others are drawn from various minority groups: Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians. If insufficient numbers of those four groups are elected as pledged delegates by voters, the state parties are required to override the will of the electorate, and hand them statewide slots on a quota basis. (Outreach is also required to the LGBT community and to the disabled, although they don't qualify for quotas). Perhaps most significantly, delegations are scrupulously divided between men and women, right down to the district level. And who chooses them? There are almost as many answers as there are delegations. In some states, like New York, ordinary voters choose some of them in primaries; in Wisconsin, a primary state, they're mostly selected at caucuses; and almost everywhere, state conventions play a role. This system may serve the interests of the party - it may even serve the interests of social justice - yet it bears but a tangential relationship to democracy, as we generally understand the term. So much, then, for pledged delegates as a transparent reflection of the public will.

The Superdelegates:

Automatic delegates to Howard Wolfson, unpledged delegates in the quaint argot of the DNC, superdelegates to the rest of us - these men and women have attained an almost mythic status in the past few weeks. But don't villify them. Howard Dean hastens to remind us that all of them have been elected by some group of voters (or by some group that was elected by a group of voters, or...nevermind.) At any rate, this marvelous group of men and women will "exercise their best judgment in the interests of the nation and of the Democratic Party." Problem solved, right?

The Problems:

By now, you probably don't even need me to point out the first issue; the DNC chair has nicely encapsulated it for us. Are these folks pursuing the interests of the nation or of the Democratic Party? Ladies and gentleman, the paradox of partisanship.

Federalism, too, plays a role. The DNC includes the chair and vice-chair of every state party, so the eighth of the superdelegate slots tied most directly to the state parties is about as representative as the United States Senate. (Which reminds me, Senators are themselves superdelegates.) Then, the DNC awards a bonus equal to 1/4 the number of superdelegates in a state, a formula that rewards the states with the least and the most superdelegates, at the expense of those in the middle.

But it's the third paradox, that of representative democracy, which the superdelegates most embody. The problem is very simple: precisely whose interests do these delegates represent? DNC members hold their seats because they give the party lots of money. Or because they represent the interests of a subset of party leaders or members. Or because they were elected in state primaries or caucuses or conventions. Or because they're policy gurus or political operatives. The list goes on. The elected officials, when you stop to think about it, aren't in a much clearer position. As a Congressman, James Clyburn represents the people of his district - not just those who can vote, and not just those who voted for him. But we're talking about his position as a superdelegate, which he holds by virtue of his elective office, which isn't quite the same thing as an extension of it. He's made it clear he doesn't feel bound by the decision of voters in his district.

No one embodies the trouble with wearing multiple hats better than Harold Ickes. In 1980, he negotiated the removal of superdelegates from the nominating process on behalf of Jesse Jackson, decrying them as unfair, and enshrined proportional representation as the sole method of selecting delegates. Last year, as a member of the DNC, he voted to approve the rules for this year's process. And he voted to strip Florida and Michigan of every last one of their delegates, because "those were the rules, and we thought we had an obligation to enforce them." But Ickes is also one of Hillary Clinton's senior advisers, and has spent the week on the phone with the media, arguing for the legitimacy of superdelegates and the need to seat MI and FL. So when the convention rolls around, will Ickes vote as a DNC member, casting his superdelegate vote against the seating of the delegations? Or as a Clinton adviser, voting to advance her interests?

There are even competing accounts of what including superdelegates was intended to accomplish. Depending on which version of the story you believe, their inclusion in the process was intended to keep party leaders engaged in the campaign and its outcome; to ensure that the DNC would vote for a new convention plan by throwing them the sop of automatic seats; to dilute the influence of activists and younger voters and heighten the sway of institutional leaders; or some combination of these. But does it matter? Like the Electoral College, they are an institution we are happiest honoring for irrelevance.

Summing Up:

I don't have any clear answers. Really, I wish I did. It'd be nice to come to a neat (if facile) conclusion, endorsing the popular vote, pledged delegates, or superdelegates as the ultimate and proper measure of the legitimacy of a candidate's claims. But there's been a lot of overheated rhetoric of late, a lot of false piety and righteous wrath, a lot of self-serving hypocrisy. I hope that, if you've made it through this excessively long screed, you'll take away a sense of complexity and irony, and greet such claims with the skepticism they deserve.

At the end of the day, only two outcomes are possible. Either the party (and the convention) will coalesce around a single candidate, or it will divide bitterly on the issue before conferring a narrow victory. No matter the weakness of the underlying logic, the former outcome will seem legitimate. No matter the persuasiveness of the claim, the latter will not. There is no single, fair measure of victory in the Democratic contest other than the one that matters - near-universal assent. It's tautological, of course, but there it is. That, I think, ought to give both campaigns pause, and remind the delegates to the convention that their ultimate purpose must be to forge a party united behind its nominee.

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. Thanks to all who have contributed to the remarkably civil conversations that have ensued - and to Josh Marshall, for his commitment to continuously pushing the envelope of the possible on this site.