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Beware What You Wish For

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

A century ago, actually about 26 years ago, the powers in the Democratic Party decided it was time to take back control of the nominating process from the often derided crazies who had been leading the Party straight down the tubes with their choices of McGovern and Carter. Of course, Carter did win, but that was in 1976.

By 1982, when the Democrats were in full swing rewriting the rules, all anyone could seem to remember was the debacle that was 1980, which seemed to have all too much in common, at least as measured by the results, with the debacle that was 1972. The prevailing wisdom was that the problem was all the fringe types who came out of the woodwork every four years to dominate the caucuses and primaries, leaving the "regulars," the "elders" and the establishment heading out the door in an effort to avoid the various disasters that were the quadrennial conventions -- where loony platforms were debated and outsiders with no chance of winning were nominated to lead the party. "Fringe types" was code for feminists, gays, minorities and crazed environmentalists. What we needed, in many minds, were more white guys with cigars.

Of course, not everyone bought into the conventional wisdom. I was a member of the then-current Rules Commission drafting committee, staffed by an array of self-described "rules junkies," most of us put in place by the two rival power centers in the Party at the time, the Kennedy camp and the Mondale camp. The other assumption, this one quickly proved wrong, was that Kennedy, Carter's 1980 challenger, and Mondale, his long-suffering vice president, would face each other for the nomination in 1984. In that calculus, Mondale was the establishment candidate and Kennedy was the insurgent, and so my marching orders from on high, or from Harold Ickes anyway, were to oppose the effort to create a category of superdelegates allowed to come to the convention unpledged, without having to run for a delegate spot and not bound by the results of their state's contests.

The reason "we" were against superdelegates was, quite transparently, because we thought they would be overwhelmingly for Mondale. But you couldn't say that, not exactly, not out loud, so I created a principled argument in support of the outcome we thought would help us. My principled argument was that the category of elected officials and party leaders would, contrary to the rules governing the Democratic Convention (which only two years earlier had voted to require itself to be equally divided between men and women, and to reflect the diversity of the party), be brimming with white guys. You're going to let white men decide who the nominee will be, I argued, loudly and full of conviction, to anyone who would listen. It's not democratic. It's closing up the system when we should be opening it up. Exactly, more than one person said to me. About time, others muttered.

That was, dare I say, the idea. Take it back from the crazies and give it to the guys.

To make a long story short, the Kennedy and Mondale people cut a deal while I was stranded in North Carolina, waylaid by the Air Florida disaster on my way to the critical Party meeting to consider the rules change. By the time I got there, the deal was done, and even my old friend Maxine Waters' fiery rhetoric extolling democracy wasn't about to derail it.

Of course, the Democratic National Committee then made things better, or worse, depending upon your perspective: They added themselves to the deal as superdelegates. While the DNC is indeed equally divided, hack is a proud term for many of its long-term members, of whom I was one. When you're talking about the DNC, you're talking about Capital-D Democrat, not small-d democracy. These are people who get picked, not elected.

And now we finally face the point of the exercise. Most years, being a superdelegate has just meant having a shortcut to a credential and some party invites. Mondale needed the superdelegates to win in '84, but that was because it was a three-man race and a plurality wouldn't do it. This is the first time the race on the ground has taken on the appearance of a tie, and the superdelegates look to actually be, potentially, decisive. That was, of course, the whole purpose.

Still, it's hard to blame my old buddy Donna Brazile for not wanting the power that is being given to her, as one of them. The truth is they shouldn't have it. Wrong then and wrong now. But unintended? Not even close.


See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

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