The Unintended Victim of the Democratic Primary

Amid all of the hysterics swirling around the debate that is the Democratic primary, there has been an innocent bystander turned unintended victim; intellectual honesty.  With the math laid out as it is right now, the only way this race could remain competitive is if there was a significant shift in the procedural mechanism of choosing our nominee, and this has become a focal point of the discussion.

Should Super Delegates count?  Should they not?  Are pledged delegates actually pledged?  What about Michigan and Florida?  Should the popular vote be considered more important than delegate totals?  All questions asked with increasing urgency in an attempt to change the state of the race.

Sean Wilentz partakes in a particularly excessive journey down this road of trying to convince somebody other than the choir that the Democratic party’s way of selecting a delegate is absolutely unfair, and if it was fair, Hillary Clinton would already be the nominee.

But Sean’s efforts display the intellectual dishonesty disconnect on two levels.  The first is that intellectual dishonesty attributed to trying to fix a game for one’s own benefit, like a four year old who changes the rules of a card game every hand such that she miraculously seems to have the winning hand every time.  There’s an actual methodology behind how we select a presidential nominee.  There is a set standard of measurement for success to which all candidates must be held accountable, and there are a number of fail-safes and added mechanisms provided to fortify the entire contest.

The purpose for such a structure is to establish a reasonable process for admitting multiple candidates into the system and coming out with (hopefully) the best candidate to run in the general election.  In such a manner, candidates are not merely pitted against each other, but also against a rigid and somewhat objective system.

Imagine a measuring cup.  The graduations on the measuring cup don’t change, and this is a good thing because when a recipe calls for three quarters of a cup of milk, it’s probably necessary for you to actually have three quarters of a cup or else you risk the final result being too dry or too mushy.  If our measuring cup, however, were to have lines that moved on a whim, on the other hand, you could imagine you were pouring three quarters of a cup of milk into your recipe, but you really weren’t, and the entire dish would be ruined.

Thus, the intellectual dishonesty that stems from all of this introspection on goal post shifting lies in intentionally altering a standard of measurement which is vital to maintaining the integrity of the contest.

Now, I have occasionally said that how a candidate runs a campaign is indeed important in weighing that candidate’s ability to hold office.  It may not be the greatest executive experience in the world, but especially in a presidential race that has been narrowed down to three senators, it is our first up close look at how each of the candidates handle the executive mantle.

When we talk about the integrity of the nomination process as it pertains to determining a candidate’s worth as a chief executive, we see each candidate given a landscape, a set of rules, and a structure, and it is up to them to plot a way to navigate all of this and then execute upon it.  So long as the standard of measure remains rigid, what we have is a rough, but usable way of comparing how the candidates handle the role of executive.

When those rules are shifted to benefit one candidate over another, however; the practice as a means of comparing the candidates to the same standard is no longer valid.  Hence the reason why reseating or recontesting Michigan and Florida is inherently caustic to maintaining the integrity of the nomination race; it’s not a matter of who benefits or not, it’s a matter of shifting the landscape of the race and reducing the integrity of the contest.

Same goes with favoring the popular vote over delegate totals, or big states over little states, or swing states over flyover states, or even fundraising capabilities.  All of these extraneous standards of measure are useful for observing and understanding the race, however; they are not the standard of measure by which the candidates were initially asked to calibrate their actions by.

In other words, there are some folks out there who are essentially trying to change the rules to let Hillary win because, they want Hillary to win.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your candidate to win, and there’s even nothing wrong with wishing the rules were different.  But there is something wrong with refusing to accept the rules as they are.

The other aspect of intellectual dishonesty is in that such arguments seem willfully oblivious to the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect democracy; that any system of electing a leader, whether it be President of the United States, Democratic nominee, or local sheriff, brings with it inherent flaws.  Changing the system may correct some flaws, but are destined to fall victim to other flaws, some perhaps even greater.

In a way, this debate often reminds me of a debate that faced our founding fathers when they came together to create the legislative system we still use today.  At the time, there was a great debate over how the states should be represented to the federal government.  Densely populated states wanted their population advantages to be represented by being awarded more legislators, while the more sparsely populated states didn’t much relish the idea of being put at such a disadvantage and favored a more uniform means of representation.

In the end, the compromise that was struck is viewed in the Senate and the House of Representatives.  The Senate equalized power by giving each state two senators regardless of population, while representatives to the House were of course meted out based upon population.

The important thing to understand, though, is that both arguments were valid.  Small states and big states both had real fears of being underrepresented, and while the compromise is likely imperfect, it has at least survived over two centuries and should carry on for quite some time more.

When we look at democracies, the first thing that we must understand is there is no 100% fair way of doing things.  Even a raw majority rules system where 50.00000000000001% of the vote gets its way holds the danger of subjugating the minority opinion, and carries with it the danger of stripping away freedom as opposed to protecting it.

Now let’s look at how our Democratic nomination process works?  Is it perfect?  No.  But let’s take, for instance, Sean’s endorsement of changing the nomination process to be more like the Republican’s in that states become winner take all.  Yes, that would have made things easier, but the flaw rests in that the process would also become much more like the electoral college system that awarded Bush the presidency in 2000 despite losing the popular vote.

Or, let’s say we take it to a popular vote?  One flaw that I would foresee runs along the same lines as that fateful 2000 election, though perhaps not quite as bad.  There are problems when we start dealing with quantifying the votes of large numbers of people.  Margins of error grow larger, and these margins of error don’t necessarily have to be a direct result of voting fraud but instead could simply result from the fact that when you are trying to pin down votes of millions and millions of people to every last one, there are bound to be discrepancies.

In a narrow election where the disparity of votes between the candidates is within what could be perceived as an acceptable margin of human error in counting, confusion sets in, and neither candidate is going to enjoy a mandated win.

That’s one of the things that pledged delegates do for you; they shrink down and kind of absorb some of the mathematical problems that can arise.

There are more flaws with our system, I admit, and I have a rough sketch of how I would tweak the system to make it better.  Some have advocated moving all the states onto a single day, but truth be told, I like having states spread out over a course of time, and I actually like having New Hampshire and Iowa, two relatively small states, going first.

The great thing about Iowa and New Hampshire is that they give the little guy a shot.  In a straight up fifty state campaign, no little guy candidate is going to be able to raise the money and challenge the elite of the party, but by starting off in two small states, the resource drag is not so apparent, and the ground that needs to be covered isn’t overwhelming.  Typically the little guy is going to get knocked off anyway, but just look at what Huckabee, a virtual also-ran from the beginning, was able to accomplish simply by winning Iowa.

By that same token, the delegate count of these states is so low that the little guy candidates who maybe aren’t the best choice for the party don’t all of a sudden lock in the nomination with a single win.

I like the pledged delegate system for the mathematical reasons stated above, but I think I would make their support more mandatory, possibly having a pledged delegate only able to switch his or her vote upon disqualification or retirement of the candidate for whom they were pledged to vote.

Super Delegates I would drop completely, though.  I understand the rationale behind their existence, however with the rise of the netroots, and with my desire, along with many others, who wish to see the Democratic party become a much more grassroots driven organization, the existence of Super Delegates runs antithetical to this goal.  if we’re going to be the party of the people, we need to be driven by the people, and not high ranking apparatus installments.

As for caucuses, I like caucuses, but I think perhaps caucuses should play a diminished role.  One of the values of caucuses is that while they may not be the best indication of the will of the population at large, they do serve as a pretty solid gauge of how effective a campaign’s grassroots organization is, which is something that I believe makes a candidate much stronger.  While I wouldn’t commit to the idea, I would be interested in seeing how things would look if every state had a Texas Two-Step like system.

And I like the proportionality system.  Again, I prefer it because it gives the little guy candidate another chance.  In general, I truly don’t like the idea of creating a system where the best known and most plugged in candidate gets to steam roll over everyone else in the field, and a winner take all system would do just that.  Proportionally handed out delegates, on the other hand, provides a more democratic process of representing Democrats to their party, and would give lesser known candidates the opportunity to continue introducing themselves later in the contest in the hopes of a late surge of support.  Again, the process is still more friendly to the establishment candidates, but the opportunity for a diamond in the rough to shine through is something I find particularly attractive.

Finally, regarding states who don’t toe the party line.  I agree that stripping Florida and Michigan of all their delegates was a huge mistake, but we did it and we have to honor that.  I would have preferred, though, that we did something more like what the Republicans did, and just stripped them of half their delegates and allowed the candidates to campaign there.  We wouldn’t be in half the trouble we’re in now.  Further, I think another lesson that this has all taught us is that there should be a greater system of communication between state party institutions, the national institution, and the individual voters.  The individual voters most importantly because I have a feeling that if Florida and Michigan Dems knew that their delegations really had a chance of not being seated, they would have had a hand in us avoiding the mess we’re in now.

But here’s the clincher, I’m not advocating any of this stuff now.  Now is the wrong time to be having this discussion, and I’ll tell you why.

In the fall we’re going to be facing a Republican candidate who has a strong biography, and has solid cross party appeal.  He has weaknesses, to be sure, but he’s going to be tough.  He’s also likely going to put us in a war with Iran and hurt the economy further with Bush style economics and he must be stopped.

Key to stopping him is putting forth a Democratic nominee whose nomination is not contested.  Allowing this argument to continue on in earnest at this point in time is going to greatly hamstring the integrity of whomever does become the Democratic candidate in the General Election, and we can’t risk any handicapping if we can help it, and this one thing we can help a great deal.

We can have a debate over our primary process, and I in fact welcome it, but let’s have that debate before the next presidential primaries when we can actually change the game without destroying its integrity as opposed to now when all we are doing is engaging in the same circular firing squad we seem so good at. 

More at memeorandumThe Jed Report (great argument here that takes my thoughts on Michigan and Florida and expands them to virtually every goal post shift out there), Lawyers, Guns and Money, The Confluence, Outside The Beltway, Taylor Marsh and Obsidian Wings

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