Who is laughing at a brokered Democratic convention now? Fans of Al Gore - and certain cable TV pundits only interested in a wild news event and ratings -- have raised the scenario for months, but the idea has been widely mocked. Now, as the media turn on Obama, after turning on Hillary, and we lament that the mud will fly and anger rise for many more weeks, is this really so implausible? See Bob Herbert's column in The New York Times today for the kind of pox-on-both-their houses that seems to be all the rage.
I'm not saying the brokered convention is now likely, or desirable -- please, no hate mail -- but if Hillary does very well from now until June, and the fight gets even nastier, try to imagine what the atmosphere might be like after that. With Clinton already fostering an anti-Obama attitude, and Obama backers ready to resent the nomination being "stolen" by Hillary, is it impossible that a "third way" will at least be considered?
I'm far from ready to go to deeply into this now, or make any predictions, but as a historian of American campaigns (with a couple of books on the subject to my credit), let me briefly recall the 1924 Democratic convention, when a compromise candidate indeed came out of nowhere and earned the nod. This was the gathering that inspired the famous Will Rogers line, "I don't belong to any organized party, I'm a Democrat."
The convention was held in New York City from June 24 to...seemingly forever. Two powerful candidates headed the field - Gov. Al Smith of New York and William G. McAdoo, former Secretary of Treasury. There were some parallels to Obama and Clinton, with Smith deemed unelectable by many because he was a Catholic and McAdoo having a close familial relationship to a former president, as son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson.
They each had strong, very separate constituencies. McAdoo had the backing of Protestants, farmers, the vast majority of delegates from the South, Midwest and West. Smith, of course, was favored by Catholics, ethnics, liberals, those in big cities, especially in the Northeast. McAdoo's people favored Prohibition and refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan; Smith's fans were against both.
Now here's a key difference: A nominee then had to gain two-thirds of the delegates to win the nod. If that were true today, a brokered convention would probably be inevitable. McAdoo got a majority on the first ballot, 431 votes, not close to the two-thirds needed,. with Smith gaining 241. Will Rogers, who would have been my candidate, got one vote; Franklin D. Roosevelt earned two. With so much anger on both sides, neither candidate backed down, and the balloting went on, and on.
By the 100th ballot, Smith was in first place but Gov. John W. Davis, the obscure former congressman and "compromise" candidate, had now overtaken McAdoo in the number two slot. It was now July 9, more than two weeks into the affair - no wonder today's cable news gasbags are salivating - and Will Rogers was exclaiming that New York had invited the delegates tot visit the city but not move there permanently. On the 103rd ballot, the delegates threw up their hands and nominated Davis.
He would be trounced by the seemingly weak Republican - a successor to the unpopular, disgraced, Warren G. Harding -- "Silent Cal" Coolidge. But Davis did not have nearly the name value or accomplishments of an Al Gore or John Edwards or....you name it.
Anyway: There's your history lesson. Now what? Your comments below.
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President - Failed on Iraq. It has been hailed by Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald, Arianna H and others. His previous books include volumes on the Nixon/Douglas race in 1950 and Upton Sinclair's amazing campaign for governor of California in 1934.