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Blame to Share in Primary Farce

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets on May 31 to determine the status of the votes cast in the Michigan and Florida primaries, its members should try to look past self-serving campaign arguments and silly attempts to save face by bumbling party leaders.

In the mind-numbing saga of the botched primary schedule, there is plenty of blame to be shared among all the participants, from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their surrogates to Howard Dean and the party apparatus in Washington.

The Clinton supporters on the rules committee -- including co-chair Alexis Herman, a former cabinet member in Bill Clinton's administration -- will have to face some hard truths about their candidate's stance on these issues. As they well know, her attitude toward the validity of the Michigan and Florida primaries shifted radically when she became certain that she was likely to win them -- and when she also realized that she needed their delegates to compete.

So it is truly remarkable to hear her argue now that discounting or disqualifying the votes in Michigan and Florida will make the Democratic Party primaries comparable to sham elections in other nations. But seeking to validate the Florida votes is at least arguably fair, since neither she nor Obama campaigned there, and supporters of the two candidates could vote for either of them. Although turnout was probably suppressed by voters' expectation that those ballots wouldn't matter, they still cast a record number of votes in the Democratic primary.

In truth, Michigan is the example that tempts comparison with dubious exercises abroad, where only one candidate's name is on the ballot and dissent is expressed by not voting, spoiling ballots or, in this case, voting "uncommitted." And Clinton should not demean herself by trying to claim the fruits of such a farce are not tainted.

The Obama supporters on the committee must likewise confront the fact that their candidate (or his surrogates) stalled and ultimately stopped the revote proposals that could have resolved the standoff many weeks ago. They know that Obama removed his name from the Michigan ballot as much for strategic reasons -- he expected to lose -- as his commitment to the party rules that state leaders had flouted.

As for Dean, whose efforts to rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states have been praised even by his critics, he flubbed this test of his political skills when he failed to negotiate a less draconian punishment than total invalidation of the contests in two of the important states come November. That failure is underlined by the double standard he applied when he decided not to punish New Hampshire and South Carolina, which had also disregarded the party rules in timing their contests.

The stumbling of the Democratic establishment created an opportunity for its G.O.P. adversaries, as journalist Wayne Barrett demonstrated weeks ago in a remarkable exposé on the Huffington Post website. Leading Democrats in Washington, D.C., as well as in Michigan and Florida were not only incompetent and shortsighted, but their mistakes allowed the Democratic primaries to be manipulated by Republican politicians in both Florida and Michigan when primary dates were set. Millions of voters were disenfranchised as a result.

Offensive as it is for the Clinton camp to claim that they should now be awarded the delegates they agreed not to count, it is also wrong for the Obama camp to insist that party rulings be followed blindly at any cost. Democratic voters in Michigan and Florida never deserved to be punished for the arrogance of their party leaders, and the principle of universal representation is just as important as following the rules -- especially when those rules have not been applied equally to everyone so far.

Happily, Obama seems inclined to realize that it is in his interest, as the likely nominee, to compromise on this issue -- and if Clinton is sincere in hinting at a fusion ticket, she should stop insisting on her own maximal position, too. Fashioning a solution that permits both states to be represented at the Denver convention without tilting the contest should be the committee's objective. And if they really must punish somebody, perhaps they should inflict the party's wrath on the Florida and Michigan party bigwigs -- now known as superdelegates -- who created this mess in the first place.

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