Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Nomination Stalemate Will Kill Iowa Caucuses

Will the Nomination Stalemate Kill the Iowa Caucuses?

Someday, Iowans may look back on the election returns from March 4, 2008, and remember that as the day the caucuses died. It's as if at each step of the way, at each opportunity for Barack Obama to clinch the nomination, Democrats are saying," no, we want more time, we want everyone to have their say." The price of peace in this dead-heat battle may be comprehensive nomination reform. The living room meet-and-greets of Iowa tradition may vanish, replaced by tarmac rallies at the Des Moines Airport.

The Obama-Clinton fight may go down as the Florida 2000 of nomination politics, with the margin of victory smaller than the margin of error. Real People -- that is, non-political junkies -- are getting their first real look under the hood at arcane rules like caucus apportionment that haven't mattered so much in the past because the fight has never been this close before. We're seeing Electoral College-like paradoxes such as Hillary Clinton winning Nevada and Texas while Obama, maybe, takes more delegates (the results are trickling in yet from the Texas caucuses).

The final declaration of a "winner" will come down to a battle for legitimacy, since both campaigns have a reasonable case to make. It'll be about definitions of winning and fights about the rules. And Lord knows, Democrats love to navel-gaze about the rules.

Even a simple claim like "the popular vote winner, or the elected delegate winner, should be the nominee" isn't so simple. Should independents and Republicans be able to chime in, or should nomination fights be card-carrying Democrats only? Should past election results matter in apportioning value to the results, or is a one person one vote standard better? Should sage party elders get a guaranteed seat at the table, or should every delegate be directly elected? And what if that means an apple-cheeked 18-year-old is locked in battle with Walter Mondale to become a delegate?

And, most importantly for us Iowans, there's timing and procedure. Are caucuses, with their Be Here Now Or Else rules and lack of hard vote counts, fair? The Clinton campaign bashes caucuses every chance it gets, invoking legitimate images of service people, little old ladies, and second-shift workers who just can't get there.

And why do we Iowans (like Hillary Clinton in a debate) go first all the time, anyway?

These aren't just simple, in-a-vacuum fights about the rules anymore. There are clear patterns, advantages and outcomes, uncomfortably underscored by sharp divisions of age and class and gender and race. The Michigan-Florida delegates -- or non-delegates -- will likely total more than the elected delegate margin. Funny how those two states, so eager to break the rules to go early and have their say, now may be magnified even more by re-voting and going last.

Obama has a reasonable argument about the legitimacy of Michigan, where he stayed off the ballot to support the early states and the rules. And in the end, a lot of this battle will be about legitimacy, so a consensus is emerging that some sort of do-over in the leapfrog states is needed. Team Clinton may be conceding the point, despite their advantage from the results of the two calendar-violating states. Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe hinted Tuesday he'd be open to a re-vote.

But that's going to be a painstakingly negotiated deal in some smoke-filled room -- actually, being progressive Democrats, it'll be a smoke free room. Michigan, with its solidly pro-Clinton leadership and its historical hostility to Iowa and New Hampshire, is likely to insist that comprehensive nomination reform is part of the package.

My favorite political movie is "The Lion in Winter." There are three princes in the 1183 Royal Primary, each with strengths and flaws, and there's only one throne. And there's only one president. There's popular sentiment for a dream ticket, in either order, as some sort of vain effort to split King Solomon's proverbial baby. If the ages were equal, or reversed, it would be easier. But Clinton, after a presumed eight years as Obama's Vice president, would be 68, near the upper end of the presidential age spectrum. And why should Obama, with an elected delegate lead, settle for number two on the ticket just because he's younger?

If this battle was taking place in 2004, with Howard Dean as the reform outsider and John Kerry as the experienced insider, it would be so much easier. They were both old white guys. Whatever happens here, one core identity constituency of the Democratic Party will be bitterly disappointed at having come so close to history yet not being able to grasp the ring. If an unlikely dream ticket can't be negotiated, Obama will need a woman on the ticket or Clinton will need a black running mate.

The change in the role and timing of the convention hurts. The quadrennial meeting has evolved into a four-night TV miniseries of hype and, as such, has been pushed back on the calendar to get it closer to November. But now, for the first time in decades, the convention may be decisive, and it won't be happening till the end of August as opposed to the traditional mid-July meeting for the out–of-power party. That leaves more weeks for superdelegate trench warfare and less time for reuniting. The televised spectacle from Denver may turn into the first credentials floor fight since 1972. Great political theater; lousy general election politics.

Meanwhile, John McCain is stopping by the White House and RNC HQ to officially accept status as "the presumptive nominee." This calls into question the whole purpose of conventions, but puts the Republicans ahead on the unity road.

The worst news out of Tuesday night for the Can't We All Just Get Along folks may be that Clinton found Obama's weak spot by going ugly and is likely to intensify that approach. They're facing seven weeks of battle in Pennsylvania, which is a demographic carbon copy of Ohio. That's followed by North Carolina, tailor-made for Obama. (Paging John Edwards.) They're looking at a tanking economy, an unpopular war, and an incumbent president at 19 percent approval, yet are about to spend tens of millions of dollars attacking each other. The Democrats need a Sinead O'Connor to say "fight the real enemy" while tearing up a photo of McCain.

Meanwhile, out here in the fields, state and local parties have their own fights. Iowa Democrats have Tom Harkin, three congressional seats, and the Legislature to defend. And with the math so closely divided both in the Electoral College picture and within our state, Iowa is sure to be a top fall battleground in the presidential race. Democratic field staff will hit the ground soon. How will it look when those local offices have a big empty space at the top of the storefront window full of signs?

Democrats may still be able to get it together, if they can settle their differences after a mid-June Florida-Michigan do-over. But the price of that do-over may be our beloved caucuses. Welcome to the 2012 National Primary.

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