It was quite some show that Harold Ickes put on in Washington on Saturday. Mustering all the self-righteous anguish he could, Hillary Clinton’s most loyal of lieutenants spent the morning, afternoon and early evening (it was a long meeting) accusing his colleagues on the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee of “hijacking” delegates and doing “violence” to the party’s deepest held values.
Finally, as nightfall approached and it became clear that the committee would soon rule against him anyway, Ickes leaned into his microphone and threatened to pick up his ball and go home. His exact words were, “Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her rights to take this to the credentials committee,” but the effect was the same: The Clinton forces didn’t get their way and responded by threatening to spoil any effort to unify the party before the August convention.
Ickes’ bluster was greeted with defiant chants of “Denver! Denver!” from the band of Clinton supporters who had made their way into the meeting hall and was quickly followed by an official statement from the Clinton campaign echoing his threat of a credentials fight this summer.
There’s no telling how long, or even whether, the angriest of the Clinton supporters will take to get on board with the party’s nominee. But as far as the threats from the campaign of keeping the fight going for the whole summer: it’s all hot air.
The actual date that Clinton will quit the race is anyone’s guess, but it’s coming – and fast. As a result of Saturday’s R.B.C. session, the new magic delegate number in the Democratic race is 2,118 – up from the 2,026 figure that has prevailed while Florida and Michigan sat in limbo. After the final primaries next Tuesday, Barack Obama will need to win over – at most – about 25 of the remaining 200 or so uncommitted superdelegates into order to clinch the nomination.
The new math comes courtesy of the R.B.C.’s decision to accept the results from Florida’s outlaw January primary but to give each delegate only half a vote. Michigan’s votes were also halved, but because of the particularly flawed nature of that state’s primary – Barack Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot, in case you haven’t heard – the state’s 128 pledged delegates will not be apportioned based solely on the primary results. Instead, the panel accepted a compromise that gives Clinton 69 delegates (she sought 73) and Obama 59 (he’d asked for an even 64-64 split), each with only a half-vote at the convention.
While the Clinton campaign had argued against reducing the value of each delegate’s vote, they seemed to accept the Florida decision, which will yield a net gain of about 14 delegates for them (depending on how many John Edwards-pledged delegates side with Obama).
But it was the Michigan ruling that prompted Ickes’ threat-making. The state’s delegates, he contended, should be apportioned based exclusively on the January primary, in which Clinton won 55 percent and “uncommitted” took 40. Such an interpretation would have given 73 delegates to Clinton and 55 to uncommitted. (Those 55, Ickes reasoned, would then be up for grabs for either candidate to win over). When the final compromise was introduced, Ickes pronounced himself “stunned that we have the gall and the chutzpah to substitute our judgment for the judgment of 600,000 voters.”
“Was the (primary) flawed? You bet your ass it was flawed,” he snarled. “It’s hard to find an election in the United States that isn’t flawed.”
To compare the conditions of the January Michigan primary with the routine kinks that accompany any election – like, say, a polling station improperly closing a few minutes early – is absurd on its face.
In Michigan, two of three major candidates who were actively campaigning on January 15 – Obama and John Edwards – weren’t even on the ballot and voters had been told for months that the contest wouldn’t count (something Clinton herself even said publicly). None of the candidates campaigned in the state and hundreds of thousands of voters either stayed home (turnout in the Democratic primary was dramatically off the pace of every state that voted this year, save Florida) or opted to participate in the Republican primary held on the same day. These are not your everyday flaws and the outcome can hardly be considered a fair and reasonable reflection of the state’s Democrats.
Of course, had the roles at the meeting been reversed and had it been Obama – and not Clinton – in desperate need of extra delegates out of Florida and Michigan, you can bet that his loyal allies on the committee would have been playing the same game Ickes did. And Ickes, for his part, would have been enumerating the many ways in which the vote in those two states was flawed. Clinton’s Florida and Michigan posture, no matter what grand purpose her diehard supporters may have convinced themselves of, was never about deeply held principles. It was about political convenience.
The same can be said, in fact, about the R.B.C.’s verdict, and this is the biggest single reason that Clinton’s threat of a convention fight is empty.The majority of committee members were motivated by two factors: a recognition of Obama’s inevitability, and a strong desire to end the primary process and move toward party unity. Clinton claimed 13 allies on the committee, but the vote on the Michigan compromise was 19-8. The reason for the defections was best expressed by Don Fowler, the former D.N.C. chairman and Clinton backer, who broke with her on the vote. Fowler pronounced himself displeased with the plan but, addressing Ickes across the room, declared: “Harold, this is my position, I respect and love you, but this is what I think we should do.”
In that moment, a fault line among Clinton supporters became clear. This may be close to a 50-50 race in terms of popular vote (it’s a 49.1-47.7 race, according to the Real Clear Politics tally), but a big chunk of those Clinton supporters are pragmatic and not blind in their loyalty. Much like Fowler and the other R.B.C. members who deserted her, they can read the writing on the wall and are not prepared to damage their party’s fall prospects for a gesture of devotion to Hillary Clinton.
Yes, Clinton has more than her share of supporters-for-life, like the spirited crowd that assembled in the meeting hall on Saturday, who made it clear that they would happily follow her into a fight in Denver. But the clear majority of the party is now prepared to accept Obama.
Instigating a credentials fight would be a horrific short- and long-term strategy for Clinton. She’d essentially be fighting for an extra four delegates in Michigan (and maybe a few of the “uncommitteds”) while facing an overall gap of 200 delegates (probably more, after next week). And it would almost certainly be in vain anyway, if the R.B.C. ruling is any clue. Plus, it would very possibly ruin her prospects for a 2012 campaign, should Obama lose in the fall. By taking her fight to the convention, she’d be blamed for an Obama defeat in the fall and her more pragmatic supporters (the Fowler-types who broke with her on Saturday) would feel no loyalty to her in 2012. Her base would be radically reduced.
Obama will soon declare victory, possibly as early as Tuesday, and likely by the end of next week. No matter what Harold Ickes is saying now, expect Clinton’s concession to come around the same time.