by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
December 18, 2007
BLOOD ON THE CONVENTION FLOOR
BRADENTON, Fla., Dec. 18, 2007 -- With three weeks to go to the Iowa caucuses and 6 more days to the New Hampshire primary, both parties are facing the kind of uncertainty that makes American democracy a vital, exciting thing and stirs long-suppressed faint hopes that the party conventions this year will be wide-open, knock-down, drag-out battles for the respective nominations.
For political reporters and analysts, including all those talking heads that populate our television sets, the possibility of open warfare for both nominations is a prospect as rare and wonderful as Grover Cleveland's comeback. Open conventions come along so infrequently that many a reporter has started and ended a 30-year career without once witnessing the most grueling, brutal, and gallant exercise in the democratic process. That is a sad story in itself.
Here are the properties that are shaping the two races. On the Republican side, the huge likelihood of losing the White House, coming as it does after the loss of both houses of Congress, is like looking at the certainty of being shot in the leg; however much it may hurt, however dangerous it may be, it is still an acceptable risk to have the singular opportunity as a party nominee to win the presidency.
The damaged men that seek the job, meaning all but one of the three front-runners bleeding from fresh wounds inflicted in the debates and on the campaign trail, have all been unable to muster the kind of consensus that was once so readily available in the Republican Party. The fourth, former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee, will probably not survive either victory or defeat in New Hampshire with any substantial numbers, due mainly to the fading power of his evangelical base and the power and experience of the competing McCain, Romney and Giuliani organizations.
On the Democratic side, a battle between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton has strengthened the third-place candidate, former Sen. John Edwards, and almost certainly ensured that no consensus candidate will emerge before Feb. 5. And the fact that there is no candidate by Feb. 5 is predispositive, I believe, to there being no favorite at the Denver convention, either.
That's because no matter how many delegates the fading favorite, Sen. Hillary Clinton, may win on Feb. 5, the failure of her campaign to capture decisive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire will leave the great majority of Democrats disgusted with the result and willing to entertain any strong alternative.
In the flush of their House and Senate majorities, Democrats are prone to believe they have some maneuvering room with their nominee and may be willing to take chances that would be unthinkable in a race against a popular Republican Administration. Saddled by the depressing weight of the Bush Administration's failures, Republicans realize they must take a chance, while knowing at the same time that chances are - given that there is no safe bet, anyway - losing the White House is inevitable.
These paradigms give rise to another: Democratic over-confidence, and Republican desperation, both of which harbor the seed of their opposite. Over-confidence can lead to a lazy, unmotivated Democratic constituency that doesn't believe a Republican can get elected under any circumstances, and therefore fails to vote; and desperation can lead to the kinds of efforts that ultimately offer victory.
There is something unique this year, though: without a front-runner, Florida and Michigan will loom far larger than they might have. Let's say that Hillary Clinton, who holds a huge lead here - an actual 50 percent majority in the last major poll - is battered into second or third place by the time the smoke clears on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 6. Second or third, that is, not counting Florida's votes, which would put her safely ahead (it would amount to 105 delegates as of that last poll, or 50 percent of Fla.'s 210); and what do you say about the front-runner then? Is he or she a "contingent" front-runner?
How can anyone call themselves a front-runner between Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 if the total delegates awarded in the first four states - Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - produce a combined 170 delegates, while the delegates from Michigan and Florida that don't count are more than double that, at 380? The first four results are meaningless in that context, and Feb. 5 becomes just a morass of confusing claims and counterclaims about who might have how many delegates if, when and maybe.The same is likely to occur on the Republican side, too, where half the votes, again, will be counted. Try explaining that to a harried housewife or a hurried husband some bone-cold night in March; it will be impossible.
The growling Chicago brawler will look up from his beer at Jake's Tavern and say, "Oh, I see. If you get the 10 percent of the 50 percent you won in Michigan and 14 percent of the 50 percent you won in Florida, and if you're already the nominee and then can seat those delegates to vote for you, then you'll be the winner? But if you don't, then you aren't, and you won't be?"
Plainly put, not being able to count any of Florida's 210 Democratic delegates, nor the 154 from Michigan, is going to be a nightmare for the Democrats in any tight race for the presidential nomination. Democratic party officials have privately assured state and county chairs that all delegates will be seated once a front-runner is established, but one will certainly not be established if the race is as tight then as it is now.
Remember, Democratic delegates in all states are awarded delegates in proportion to their share of the popular vote; that's not true with the winner-take-all Republicans). In that case, Republicans will win a huge public relations victory if they do unite by and then seat the second half of the Fla. and Mich. delegations, while Democrats under party rules will be unable to seat any Florida or Michigan delegates if there is a political impasse over the nominee. They get seated only when there's a nominee.
So, Democrats are going into the convention with a leg wound of their own; they've shot themselves in the foot. In denying states the right to run their primaries as they see fit, and discounting the ability of the American people to make choices other than the inevitable - i.e, Hillary - and ignoring the depth of their dissatisfaction with both parties, they have established a counterforce, an opposing wave, that may wash away the customary bounce from the convention and spoil their chances a scant 68 days later on Election Day, Nov. 4.
Republicans cannot gain any confidence from these presuppositions. It may well be that Hillary is absolutely dominant on Feb. 5 (I should disclose that although I gave her $100, I am not now planning to vote for her). It may be that Huckabee will overcome the financial and logistical hurdles of twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and, like another improbably Hope-born Arkansas boy, snatch away the nomination soon after. But that now seems as improbable as an open convention was when I started talking it up a few months ago.
To avoid the uncertainty, the DNCC's Rules Committee would have to reverse itself right now and agree to seat all delegates in the overriding interest of party unity; if they do, they can hope the Republicans won't follow suit, and that a Democratic victory will spring from unity in 2008.
With this column, AR Correspondent Joe Shea begins a xolumn on politics that will continue through November 2008. Disclosure: Shea contributes to many Democratic candidates, including Sens. Biden, Clinton, Dodd and Obama, and to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Sens. John Edwards and Mike Gravel and Gov. Bill Richardson, and to Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Ron Paul.