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What Next?

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, March 07, 2008

So now what?

The Republicans have their nominee -- and the Democrats have a marathon that it's not clear can be won, at least not on conventional terms.

I remember, 20-something years ago, when we cut the first deal establishing a category of automatic unpledged delegates, the back and forth about whether we were undermining small-d democracy, building in a check on a nomination process gone awry, or just making sure that the folks you wanted to come to the convention would be there without having to run for delegate slots. As it turns out, we were doing all of the above.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the PLEO's (Party Leaders and Elected Officials), as we used to call them, do not play a decisive role in picking the nominee. The only question is, how decisive.

That depends.

It depends on whether Hillary can ride her wave from Super Tuesday II into Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico; it depends on whether she can put together enough support in the other states to take a significant share of the delegates; it depends on how close the count is in terms of pledged delegates and the popular vote by the first week of June.

But it depends even more, as is becoming clearer each day, on how party leaders and elected officials, not to mention the courts that I'm betting will be involved soon, deal with the problem of the Michigan and Florida delegations.

Other party chairs before Howard Dean have tried to deal with rebellious states that don't want to play by the rules, but in the end, they've all ended up caving and agreeing to let the rebels have their early primary, or open it to non-Democrats, thus avoiding a serious credential challenge. Fortitude is a fine quality in most circumstances, but it's not exactly what's called for here. A fair solution is.

In a race that's shaping up to be the closest any of us have seen to a tie in our lifetimes, disenfranchising two states with the result that the decision on the nomination depends on party leaders just doesn't have the right feel to it. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has been even more explicit, taking the position that refusing to seat a delegation from Florida at the National Convention is the first step to losing that critical battleground state in the fall. He's speaking out publicly because, he says, Howard Dean won't take his calls.

Technically speaking, there are two ways out for the party. The first is a redo, which is the obvious answer, except that someone has to pay for it. Trying to force the state to do that seems to be a nonstarter, certainly in Florida, where the Republican governor and legislature have insisted the party should pay the bill, not them.

The second alternative is to wait until the summer for a credentials challenge, which would be decided in the first instance by a credentials committee apportioned to the two candidates according to their share of pledged delegates (dare I suggest, equally divided). The outcome would then be reflected in a committee report -- and, of course, a minority report -- to be voted on at the opening session of the convention. The report would either call for seating, or not seating, the challenged delegations. The minority report would call for the opposite. How do you spell UGLY? Great for TV ratings, but not for winning elections.

As the coordinator of all 44 of the minority report challenges at the 1980 convention -- the last time we had a real fight -- dare I suggest what a bad idea this would be for anyone who cares about the Democrats actually winning in the fall? Or to put it another way, the party's paying for Florida and Michigan would be cheap compared to the price it would pay for letting this fight go on until August.

The third alternative, of course, is that someone will go to court to try to force the state and national parties to do something. Frankly, I'm surprised that hasn't happened yet. The power given to parties to supervise the process puts them in a position where they can be challenged for disenfranchising voters from Florida and Michigan -- for not giving them the same right to participate in the process as voters from other states. The fact that the national party is blaming the state parties and the state parties are blaming the national party isn't likely to stop some enterprising voters/lawyers from blaming both and suing them in an effort to force them to take action.

Beware what you wish for. Florida and Michigan moved up their contests in the hope that they would have more influence over the selection of the nominee. They may end up with more than they bargained for.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

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