While I am an Obama supporter, I try not to be unfair about it. I was originally for Feingold, then Gore, then Edwards, then thinking about Dodd, before finally deciding on Obama once it became a two-person race, so I'm not a "cultist" blinded by Obama's brilliance. I'm mightly impressed, though, by his intellect, his character, his forthrightness, and his apparent ability to attract people from across the ideological spectrum to his side. That is what determined my decision.
But I also have to give proper due to the other side. Hillary supporters have made the argument that delegates have to use their independent judgment. Hillary's supporters are right about that. They tend to leave out that part of that judgment has to be whether their making decisions that go against the apparent popular will, as expressed in nomination contests, would be seen as stealing the election and thus ruin the party, but they are correct that superdelegates have to be concerned for the good of the party, even at some insult to majoritarian rule.
This diary considers when superdelegates should intervene in the election.
Superdelegates and Spitzer
If I were to offer two words that can explain why superdelegates might be called upon to upend popular will and drive the vote towards another candidate, those two words would be "Eliot Spitzer." If Spitzer were running for President -- as had apparently been his longterm plan for some future year -- and the prostitution story had come out at about this time in the campaign, I would expect the superdelegates to lower the boom on him even if he thought he could stay in the race.
They are the party leaders, after all. It would be up to them to convince Spitzer's pledged delegates that they had to abandon his doomed candidacy and support someone else, and it would be up Spitzer's superdelegates to lead the rush for the door by declaring themselves independent. That is part of protecting the party. It would be "undemocratic," and we would certainly hope (and demand) that they would listen to constituency groups (including the netroots) in deciding who the nominee should be, but it is a completely proper role for them to play.
Hillary is in part hanging on, I believe, in the hope that some similar lightning bolt (n.b.: in Hebrew, "barak") will strike and wipe out Obama's candidacy. We Obama supporters cannot just say "there are no possible grounds under which superdelegates could flee from Obama"; instead, our argument is that those grounds have not occurred. I suggest that two things must be present for superdelegates to have the moral right and political cover -- as opposed to the legal right, which no one disputes they have -- to abandon the frontrunner and subvert the popular will: (1) the damage to the frontrunner's campaign must be completely devastating and (2) the alternative choice must be clearly better in light of that devastation.
Let's not underestimate how grave -- albeit conceivable -- of a decision this would be. You have to go back to 1968 to see when superdelegates played this sort of role, and that was in the wake of the RFK assassination on the night of the final primary, when obviously some drastic decisions had to be made, and only party leaders could make them.
Superdelegates and Wright
The statements of Pastor Wright might be examined to see whether they would be such a damaging strike. Are they going to hurt Obama at all? Let's assume they probably will. Will they hurt him much? It's hard to say. Will they hurt him more than wresting the nomination away from him based on their having occurred would hurt an alternative Democratic candidate? Almost certainly not. Hillary supporters mut be intellectually honest as well, and they have to give a fair assessment of what it would mean to the Democratic coalition for a nomination to be wrested away from the frontrunner on this basis. I'm happy to hear their arguments that it would be no big deal, but I'd be hard to convince. What will have to happen in the wake of the Wright statements is that Democrats will have to coalesce behind Obama and explain that the continuing anger of particularly Blacks who were involved in the civil rights era leads them to say some things that many of us would not like to hear -- as Martin Luther King Jr. did more than once -- and that those statements "in prophetic voice" cannot be laid at Obama's feet. On the other hand, fixing the fracture of the party if Obama were to lose the nomination based on those comments -- I can't imagine a solution.
Superdelegates and Clinton
The other part of the equation is: what is the alternative? Can we be assured that nothing will blow up the alternative candidate's campaign? In this case, the answer is very clear that we cannot be so assured. We have the failure to release tax information since 2001, we have the dealings with donors to the Clinton Library, we have the as-yet-almost-uncommented-upon problem of Hillary having almost $400MM in earmarks to Obama's under $100MM and McCain's $0 -- we have lots of reason to worry about Hillary not being subject to scandal and to devastating attack, and that's without factoring her high negatives and lower ability to attract support from independents and honest (as opposed to tactical) support from Republicans.
Reversing the popular will is a huge step; how huge depends on the scope of that majority. If Obama goes in with a two-vote lead in pledged delegates, superdelegates can probably do as they wish without upsetting a party still smarting over Florida 2000; if he goes in with 200 vote lead in pledged delegates, it should take something huge -- though not as huge as the Spitzer revelation -- to knock off his candidacy, and even then only if there is a stronger alternative.
If Hillary wants to be seen as that alternative, she needs to release those tax records now, give stronger answers about Geraldine Ferraro's statements, explain what the former President has been doing for his donors, and lots more. Yes, superdelegates can override the popular will, Senator Clinton, but if you want to take that ride all of the above are part of the fare you must pay.
Superdelegates as Referees
The superdelegates can pre-empt (as opposed to override) the popular will to preserve the welfare of the party as well. In a circumstance where one candidate is clearly ahead by a solid though not decisive margin, they can referee the state of play. So long as the race remains positive and substantive, there ought to be no problem with the race going forward. But if the trailing candidate adopts a scorched earth strategy, then the superdelegates -- like umpires watching the gathering storm descending on the stadium -- have the moral and political right to call the game early. If Hillary is damaging the party, then her superdelegate lead has to stall, reverse course, evaporate, and finally become an overwhelming deficit. If she can remain in the race without wrecking the party, that's fine; superdelegates are the ones who can make that decision.
I'm torn about whehter Hillary should stay in the race even if she can stay positive and constructive. There are costs (largely in terms of money that could go elsewhere) and benefits (largely in terms of getting a jump start on local organizing in the states to come.) But one thing I am not torn about at all. For the nomination to be taken away from a candidate who has a solid lead in pledged delegates, there had better be a damn good reason. That means a serious scandal, a complete blow-up, and a compelling alternative. And Hillary not only isn't close to showing that that is in the offings, she hasn't even done her part to show that she could be considered less likely to sink into scandal!
I remember back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running third in the wake of the revelations about Gennifer Flowers and the like. Like many other Democrats, I wished that the nomination could be taken away from him and given to someone like Mario Cuomo, who was considered the party favorite had he chose to run. But people understood that for something of the sort to happen, Clinton's campaign would truly have to implode. The Clintonistas should show that they understand that as well before making arguments about the role superdelegates should play in determining the outcome of this contest.