When Did Democrats Become Anti-Democracy?

We hear voices on the left saying that it's time to bring this democracy "game" to an end. We must, they insist, get down to the next order of business.
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Call me naïve, but until very recently I had been living under the impression that Wyoming, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Guam, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico held primaries and caucuses so that they could have a voice in deciding their party nominees for president of the United States. Thankfully, it has since been explained to me in print, on television and all over the Internet that in fact they were all really supposed to be a sort of bonus package for the candidate ahead at the very moment the Senator from Illinois pulled into the lead. Who knew? And when did Democrats become the anti-democracy party?

It seems that something happened that nobody was expecting this primary season: democracy broke out. Barack Obama won Iowa, and based upon this caucus win in a single state, became the new front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Not so fast, said New Hampshire voters ("voters" are the people who decide states, for those who seem to have forgotten). Clinton's slim win in an even smaller state suddenly made her the new woman to beat. That lasted exactly 17 days. As we all well know, they have been trading victories and defeats ever since.

Thanks to a series of contests -- each seeming to be a more staggeringly awful system of picking delegates than the last -- we have now reached a point where, even by winning every single primary and caucus to come, neither candidate can capture enough pledged delegates to actually become the nominee. According to many Clinton supporters, superdelegates will make the final call. Those are "the rules," they argue. Superdelegates are, of course, praying for a clear-cut winner to emerge before they have to weigh in. Obama supporters counter that superdelegates shouldn't overturn the will of the voters. However, they can only argue that the will of the voters is on their side if they ignore contests in Florida and Michigan, which were boycotted by the party. I'll grant them Michigan, since Obama's name wasn't on the ballot. But Florida? They were on equal footing there, and Clinton won a fair contest. But, just as the contests to come are too late, Florida was too early to count. On this point, the Clinton camp suddenly becomes against "the rules" and totally in favor of just letting the voters decide.

This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. Hillary Clinton was supposed to walk through showers of rose petals over the crushed carcasses of her opponents to a coronation no later than Super Tuesday. After an appeal at a July meeting, the Michigan and Florida delegates would be quietly seated. Everybody knew this would happen, and this was one reason local Edwards and Obama campaigns set up phone banks to urge Michigan Democrats to vote for "uncommitted" over Hillary Clinton (or one of the other three major candidates still on the ballot). After all, even Democrats aren't so incompetent when it comes to electioneering that they actually planned to give a giant "screw off" to the fourth and eighth most populous states -- so long as it didn't affect the outcome, of course.

But somehow, something many party leaders, bloggers and journalists can only see as anarchy broke out. Ballots cast by voters in every state actually became capable of changing the outcome of the race. "The game" as Obama's spokesman is far too fond of calling it, was set. The problem is that this isn't a game, it's an election. Both Obama and Clinton would be wise to remember that.

Voter suppression cannot win this contest honestly for Obama, and shady backroom deals cannot win it honestly for Clinton. Only real votes can do it, from the real voters that many Democrats on both sides are now trying to silence, often while shouting that they're doing so because the voters have spoken. What this means is that other, more agreeable voters have spoken.

Spoken they have, and in staggering numbers. Not counting Michigan, 13,566,066 Americans have cast votes for Senator Clinton this year. Another 12,989,852 have cast ballots for Obama. I'm sure there are some Obama supporters who will dispute those numbers, since the voters in Florida weren't invited to "the game." I invite these people to, rather than argue with me, look a Florida voter in the eye and tell them that they weren't actually a real American casting a real ballot. Not that who is or isn't ahead at this moment in the popular vote is even a point worth arguing. The race isn't over yet, as both sides are clearly aware.

Yet, we hear voices on the left saying that it's time to bring this democracy "game" to an end. We must, they insist, get down to the next order of business. In another eerie, ironic and unsettling parallel to the worst election debacle of recent times, this is the very same argument brought to the American people and the Supreme Court by Bush in 2000. I don't care which candidate you'd like to see come out on top -- it takes an unconscionable level of rationalization to conclude that putting fast results ahead of the will of the voters is any less wrong now than it was then.

But I don't find it merely morally reprehensible that anyone would demand Clinton -- or Obama, obviously -- drop out at this point. I also find it unwise for a number of pragmatic reasons. Forcing a popular opponent out of the race isn't going to endear either candidate to anybody, and Democrats are benefiting from this not-quite-unified front far more than most care to admit. The benefits of keeping this race going could (unless things get much, much uglier on both sides) far outweigh the negatives.

Everywhere this primary race goes, thousands and thousands of voters register Democratic and flock to the polls. People are engaging in the political process in numbers unseen in decades. Even better: just 7,224,250 ballots have been cast for the Republican nominee, a number unlikely to rise by much as the contests continue. The turnout advantage is real and it's clear. Democrats should be elated at the prospect of taking this through every state in the union, not bitter that their candidate has to actually earn the nomination.

When we look more closely at the votes, the news for Democrats gets even better. Unlike 2004, these voters all seem to be coming out to vote for somebody, not against somebody else. Polls consistently show that the vast majority of people voting in these primaries like both candidates. 90% of Obama supporters would vote for Clinton in a general election, and a solid (though less comforting) 75% of Clinton voters would step behind Obama. Democrats should be overjoyed at the turnout advantage, not convincing themselves that their candidates' reputations can't survive a lengthy primary.

Yet we hear this constant, pointless reminder: John McCain has started his national campaign. So what? In addition registering and turning out these voters, the Democratic candidates are also being forced to set up serious ground operations in every single state in the union -- if they can't make that very useful in a general election, they couldn't win one to begin with.

Though I abhor delving into the marketing (or "bullshit") pros and cons, there are definite benefits to a longer contest in that regard as well. As Democrats move from contest to contest, the press follows every development with great interest. All the while, they can use this free press to promote themselves and slam McCain. The poor Arizona lawmaker, on the other hand,is left to take on both or shoot at a moving target. He's also going to have to try a lot harder for free coverage.

A convention showdown could be particularly beneficial in this regard. Candidates tend to get a boost after the official nomination and in this kind of a hard-fought race, I'd expect to see a bigger one than usual, particularly if the media coverage is especially dramatic. The closer that comes to the election, the more good it does the eventual nominee. This rings especially true when you consider Clinton's high set negatives and the fact that, while Obama's positives are out there for all to see, not too many people have figured out, say, that Rezko house deal. Clinton could use a feel-good boost, and Obama stands to benefit from a short election.

Fundraising is often mentioned as a McCain advantage if the Democratic race drags on. This, however, becomes irrelevant if Barack Obama takes the nomination. Or, rather, it should. Obama simply cannot run as a clean-politics reformer while using semantics to get around a pledge to hold a publicly financed election. If Clinton wins, this becomes a bit more problematic, as she can claim she never made such an offer, allowing McCain's head start to come into play. Still, I think the fund raising numbers speak for themselves: even if McCain saves his pennies from now 'til August, either Democrat can still mop the floor with him when it comes to bringing in the cash.

Now, don't get me wrong. It isn't all smiles and sunshine. John McCain is clearly a popular figure and a formidable candidate who looks very capable of stealing suburban women, Latinos and even a good chunk of working class males if given the opportunity. And if Democrats are good at anything, it's turning certain victory into narrow defeat. It's just very hard for even my cynical eyes to look at an energized electorate, meaningful voting, a forced 50-state strategy and tons of free, compelling press and see nothing but doom and gloom.

If this is the road we're on, I say we take it all the way to Puerto Rico.

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