The End Game in the Democratic Presidential Nominating Contest

While the Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota primaries will complete the formal Democratic delegate selection process next Tuesday, June 3, the major remaining event will be held this Saturday in a Washington hotel. The Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee will meet to respond to petitions filed by Florida and Michigan Democrats to seat their delegations sanctioned for violating the timing provisions of party rules. How the committee resolves the seating of these state delegations and, just as importantly, how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama react to its decision will determine how quickly a presumptive nominee is recognized and how unified Democrats are likely to be in the general election campaign.

In recent weeks Clinton has turned up the heat on the DNC with sharp rhetoric about “counting every vote.” Her supporters and staff now demand a full seating of the two delegations, with delegates allocated in line with the primary results. But votes cast outside the rule of law and in the absence of contested elections lack moral standing and by themselves have no legitimate claim on the selection of delegates to the national party convention. Hence the necessity of a principled but pragmatic accommodation of the various interests is at stake.

From a party perspective, those interests are maintaining the credibility of DNC sanctions, doing no damage to Democratic prospects in Florida and Michigan in the November election, and making it easier to unify the party quickly for the general election campaign.

The solution is crystal clear; the problem is getting all parties to agree to it. Here’s what to do: Seat the full complement of pledged delegates from both states but, like the Republican National Committee sanction on the two states, give each delegate only one-half vote. This is the minimum sanction consistent with party rules. Allocate the delegates from Florida between the candidates based on the primary results. At least all of the candidates were on the ballot, though none campaigned in the state. In Michigan, where Obama and Edwards did not appear on the ballot, use the Clinton vote (55 percent) to allocate delegates to her; then allow Obama and Edwards the right to approve the delegates elected on the uncommitted slate (a procedure embedded in party rules for all pledged delegates), making likely a fair reflection of the presidential preferences of Michigan voters who selected the uncommitted option on the truncated ballot. Retain full votes for the unpledged party leaders and elected officials – the so-called superdelegates – reflecting their status in the party charter and the irrelevance of the state primaries to their standing at the convention, even though many of them were partly responsible for the violation of party rules.

It is hard to see how Clinton could credibly demand more than this very generous accommodation of her interests. With their long history in and commitment to the Democratic Party, it is likely that most Clinton supporters on the Rules and Bylaws Committee would support such a compromise even if their candidate did not. And if Clinton then vowed to take a challenge to the Credentials Committee and the convention, it is likely that many of the superdelegates supporting her candidacy would switch to Obama, joining those still uncommitted, and give him an insuperable delegate advantage. In that case, she would have done nothing to advance her long-shot candidacy but she would have succeeded in diminishing her standing in the party and her party’s prospects in the general election.