The definitive moment of the 2008 presidential primary may have happened in Nevada, but it's possible none of us have seen it quite yet.
But that's not what I'd like to address tonight. Tonight I'd like to talk about voter suppression tactics and Bill Clinton and the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination.
Four years ago, I wrote a piece on DailyKos in the aftermath of our election loss in 2004 and inspired by Howard Dean and the chorus of activists speaking out about what happened in Ohio and Florida: it was called To Be a Fighting Democrat. (That was before Rahm gave the expression a different, more literal, twist.)
Here was a key passage:
I think one thing is clear to me now, that wasn't two weeks ago. When you get right down to it...if you can't fight for election reform, you are not a fighting democrat.
In other words, as Democrats we stand up for the right of every citizen to vote and we fight like hell to ensure that happens. As Democrats we know that voter suppression is always wrong, for Democrats, voter suppression never pays...or it shouldn't.
Josh Marhsall put it well when referring to the Nevada lawsuit that sought to shut down the At Large Caucus sites that in large part gave Senator Clinton her victory today:
If there's one thing that's core to the modern Democratic party is that voter suppression tactics are always wrong. Much of the US Attorney purge scandal was at root about Republican voter suppression tactics. I suspect this is doubly wrong -- both in the sense that the suit is meritless on its face but certainly also in the sense that you don't decide how easy to make it for people to vote depending on who you think they're likely to vote for.
Please leave these shameful tactics to Republicans.
Here's the thing: Bill Clinton supported that lawsuit. He misled the public about the likely impact of the At Large Caucus sites on election day. And, irony of ironies, just to prove our ex-President wrong in fact and deed, Senator Clinton won the At Large Caucuses as the cornerstone of her win in Clark County. Senator Clinton's win in Nevada is founded on the very voters that the lawsuit Bill Clinton endorsed meant to suppress.
Check out this blog post from the New York Times. Scroll down to check out the photo by Damon Winter...it's of workers lined up to caucus at the Flamingo Hotel...you can see them, working class voters of all backgrounds in their uniforms lined up to participate. These are caucus goers who took time off of work to caucus at At Large Caucus sites at casinos under an agreement negotiated months ago by the Nevada Democratic Party.
In point of fact, many of them caucused for Hillary Clinton.
None of them would have been able to caucus at that At Large Caucus site had the lawsuit supported by ex-President Clinton succeeded.
Bill Clinton misled the public about that lawsuit. He lied.
He said that the At Large Caucus sites would yield delegates at a 5 to 1 advantage. If that were true one would think that Hillary Clinton would have the most delegates from Nevada tonight. Bill Clinton misled the nation on that one. (Ironically, Barack Obama "won" Nevada by the exact opposite effect: the caucus delegates from outstate ended up weighing more heavily.) That lawsuit failed.
Further, Bill Clinton suggested that this advantage was "uncovered" by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to shut down those At Large Caucus sites just days after the endorsement of Barack Obama by the Culinary Workers Union. What the President did not tell was that the plaintiffs included Democrats who actually helped write the rules that set up the caucuses in the first place.
But that's not the core of it. The core of it is that Bill Clinton, a Democrat and the leading elder of our party, came out in favor of a lawsuit to shut down the At Large Caucus sites entirely.
And in doing so, he was unapologetic:
You asked the question in an accusatory way so I'll ask you back. Do you really believe that all the Democrats understood that they had agreed to give everybody at the casino a vote worth five times as much people who voted in their own precinct? Did you know that? Their votes will be counted five times more powerfully in terms of delegates to the state convention who pick the delegates to the national convention?
What happened is that nobody understood, what had happened is that they uncovered it...and now everybody is saying, "Oh, they don't want us to vote."
It's unforgivable because Bill Clinton is a Democratic ex-President who should, if he is for anything, support the right of citizens to go to the polls and caucus regardless of who they are likely to support. But more than that, it is also unforgivable because in supporting a last-minute lawsuit to suppress the vote of working people in Las Vegas, to go back on a long-standing agreement made within the Nevada Democratic Party, Bill Clinton opened our party up to any and every last minute voter suppression tactic and lawsuit undertaken by the GOP in 2008.
And yeah, after our experiences as a party in 2000 and 2004, that's unforgivable. It's a deal breaker.
There's too much at stake.
Alot of folks think this was just more "bull from Bill." Others think there was some merit to the lawsuit in the abstract.
I don't agree, but I'm not going to hide those facts. Others have parsed the legal issues in more detail, but the essence of the suit was clear. The lawsuit did not ask for a rebalancing of the delegate distribution or for more At Large Caucus sites...ie. outcomes that would allow everyone or, in fact, even more voters to participate...the remedy the lawsuit asked for was the closure of the At Large Caucus sites. That would certainly have lead to fewer voters being able to caucus. And the record turnout today makes that point perfectly clear.
Senator Clinton did not need that lawsuit (pdf). If it had gone through and the At Large Caucus sites would have been shut down, it would have likely hurt Senator Clinton's totals...and perhaps taken away her popular count victory today. But that's not the point. The point is that if the lawsuit President Clinton supported had succeeded, most of those caucus goers would not have been able to participate today. Whatever the outcome or their preference of candidate that would have been a loss for all of us.
If there is anything the Democratic Party should stand united on in 2008, it is the value that voter suppression is always wrong, should never pay and is never a "tolerable offense."
I like Bill Clinton. I respect his service to our nation as President and his work since that time at home and abroad.
But I'd like to send a message to my fellow Democrats tonight. Voter suppression tactics should never pay.
We should think about the role Bill Clinton has played in the process of nominating a candidate to be the standard-bearer of our party in 2008. We should ask ourselves if supporting a candidate who throws our essential values out the window in the process of winning a nomination...justifies those ends.
Hillary Clinton did not need that lawsuit. If it had gone through, it would have hurt her, not Barack Obama. There's a powerful lesson in that. And a powerful question.
In Nevada we saw something essential about William Jefferson Clinton and the Clinton campaign for president.
How does that make you feel to be a Democrat?