Avoiding a Convention Train Wreck

Anyone who thinks the battle for the Democratic nomination isn't heading for a train wreck hasn't looked closely at the results of Super Tuesday.

Paul Kane from the Washington Post has done the math:

There are 3,253 pledged delegates, those doled out based on actual voting in primaries and caucuses. And you need 2,025 to win the nomination. To date, about 55% of those 3,253 delegates have been pledged in the voting process -- with Clinton and Obama roughly splitting them at about 900 delegates a piece. That means there are now only about 1,400 delegates left up for grabs in the remaining states and territories voting.

So, do the math. If they both have about 900 pledged delegates so far, they need to win more than 1,100 of the remaining 1,400 delegates to win the nomination through actual voting. Ain't gonna happen, barring a stunning scandal or some new crazy revelation. So, they'll keep fighting this thing out, each accumulating their chunk of delegates, one of them holding a slight edge and both finishing the voting process with 1,600 or so delegates.

What that means is a nomination fight brokered at the convention by super-delegates. At best, a lot of backroom dealing and arm-twisting will eventually produce a majority of delegates for the candidate who comes in with the most delegates pledged in the voting process. By then however, it will be late August and Democrats will have spent the entire summer fighting with each other instead of focusing on how to defeat John McCain. For the Democratic nominee, it may well be too late.

And that's the best case scenario. What if either Obama or Clinton comes out of the primary process with a pledged delegate lead, but is denied the nomination by super delegates? Maybe the party elders will decide in their great wisdom that Obama is more electable or Clinton deserves it more, or maybe the losing candidate will simply twist arms harder or promise more. In either case, the result could rip the party apart as a good and strong candidate who has won the primary/caucus process gets deprived of the nomination. And what if the yet to be named "credentials" committee decides to seat a Michigan delegation even though Obama kept his name off the ballot out of respect for the party's decision and these votes swing the election to Clinton? It could be 1968 in Chicago all over again.

Is there any way to avoid this train wreck? Yes, but only if super delegates and rank and file Democrats act fast. The virtual tie right now in pledged delegates offers what philosopher John Rawls famously called a "veil of ignorance." No one knows right now who will win the race for pledged delegates, it is clear only that the system picked by the Democratic party to avoid a train wreck is heading straight toward one. If the super delegates wanted to they could agree now to this simple pledge: "In my capacity as a super delegate, I will vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, depending on who wins the most pledged delegates in the primary and caucus process established by the Democratic Party." If 100 or 150 super delegates signed such a pledge (and there are 400 or so currently not supporting either candidate right now), such a block should be sufficient to swing the nomination to the winning candidate.

The problem of course is that this is asking to super delegates to give up the significant amount of power their position suddenly entails. The lure of a promised vote, project or prized appointment can awful strong. That's where rank and file Democrats could play a role. These super delegates hold a position of trust in the party, a position bestowed upon them, in one way or another, by members of the party. It would seem fair for these party members to ask these super delegates what they are doing to avoid a convention fight in August that could doom the party's chances in November.

There may be times when it is appropriate for super delegates of either party to broker the choice of a nominee. If a scandal erupts after one candidate has won a majority of the pledged delegates, for example. But with two strong and popular candidates waging a fierce but fair nomination battle, this seems like a case where democracy should be allowed to work its course.