The DNC Doesn’t Owe You Anything

I just want to expand upon a point I made snarkily on Twitter that’s gotten some attention and heat. I said:

BREAKING: Secret emails reveal that many in DNC did not like non-Democrat, anti-DNC candidate Sanders, preferred actual Democrat.

WikiLeaks (which probably needs a whole other post to complain about) released private email correspondences from the Democratic National Committee showing that, shock of shocks, the DNC really did favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Well no shit.

There is nothing wrong with a political party’s operation preferring one candidate over another, especially if one candidate would be a terrible choice for nominee. Especially if that terrible choice also happens to have been a Democrat for about five minutes. Especially when that terrible choice seems to loathe the very party he wants to nominate him.

The DNC would be full of suicidal lunatics if they didn’t prefer one over the other when the choice is so stark. If it were a choice between, for example, John Kerry and Joe Biden, there would be little reason for there to be any kind of consternation over who might get nominated. Neither of those candidates oppose the party itself in any meaningful way, and both would have comparable electoral prospects. But Clinton versus Sanders is easy. If you are in the DNC, and you’re not a lunatic, you prefer the former Secretary of State and First Lady who’s mind-blowingly qualified and has been fighting for and winning Democratic objectives for decades. You don’t choose the batty old socialist from Vermont who has accomplished little in office, who has accused the party of all manner of crimes and corruption, and who isn’t even really a Democrat to begin with. Because, again, we’re assuming they’re not lunatics.

Ah, you might retort, as many have in various forms, So it’s okay that the party cheated and denied the voters their true choice???

Stop it, I say, you sound crazy.

First, there’s no reason to believe anyone cheated anything, and asserting as much is just conspiracy mongering. And there would have been no reason to “cheat” anyway, because Clinton — at all times throughout this entire campaign, without any exception of which I am aware — was the more popular candidate. Thus, she won the most votes, and also thus, won the most pledged delegates. So the voters actually got their choice. Just because you might not like that choice doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Second (and I feel like I’m beating this drum to death), political parties are not the government, and they have no obligation to choose the candidates they field for office by election. None. The DNC doesn’t owe you an election, or a voice, or any role in its nomination process whatsoever — especially if you’re not even a Democrat. They’ve chosen to go about it a certain way that includes a mix of statewide popular elections and the judgment of some party leaders. But any political party could decide tomorrow that they will choose candidates by random lottery, by a series of duels, by high score at Crossy Road, or — and I know this sounds nuts — by a bunch of party leaders getting together to hash out which candidate would best advance the causes of the party and have the best chance of getting elected. Insane, right?

This is to say that if the DNC did put their thumb on the scale for Clinton somewhere, that’s entirely within their right to do so. But it’s also true that there’s little evidence that they did any meaningful thumbing. The scheduling of the early debates on Saturday nights was stupid and transparent, and actually kind of cowardly, but it wasn’t evil or undemocratic or anything like that.

The DNC’s obligation is to further the Democratic Party. That’s what they owe you, the best shot for Democrats to be elected to office. They are not obligated to appease a loud and hostile constituency, or even to honor small-D democratic principles. They need to help Democrats who believe in Democrat things get elected. That’s it.

My only wish is that they were better at it.

Presidential Primaries Might Be a Terrible Idea

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Political parties aren’t the government, even though the Democrats and Republicans have so entirely weaved their parties into the machinery of government and the electoral system. Constitutionally, the two major parties are no more “official” than the Natural Law Party or the Rent is Too Damn High Party. They are nongovernmental associations that organize to field candidates for public office around the shared positions and values of whatever coalition of interests they can cobble together.

As such, they can choose the candidates they’ll run for office any way they like. Right now, the two major parties base these decisions largely on constituents’ votes in primary elections and caucuses, run through a very porous filter of delegate allocation. But if they chose, they could have party bosses choose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. They could even draw straws to see who would run for what, or have prospective candidates engage in medieval combat. It’s up to them.

The primary system we have now is relatively new, and on its face, the idea that the constituents of a party would choose a presidential candidate by (more or less) a popular vote seems like a good idea. It feels, if nothing else, fair. This is a democracy, and so we’ll pick our candidates democratically.

We take this for granted as the wisest and most morally correct method. We can see this whenever the prospect of something that might contradict the popular verdict arises, like superdelegates in the Democratic Party, the specter of a brokered convention, or when the particular rules of a given primary or caucus seem less than straightforward. People’s hackles are raised, and there is much crowing about the right to vote and the subverting of democracy.

But of course, we do not have a constitutional right to vote for party nominees. (Indeed, we don’t even have a constitutional right to vote at all, but that’s another discussion.) Candidacies aren’t political offices. It may be cynical or underhanded for a party to subvert the will of its primary voters, but it’s not against the law or a violation of representative democracy.

In case you can’t tell, I’m no longer convinced that primaries are the best way to choose candidates for office. Even just confining the discussion to the presidency, it no longer seems self-evident, as it once did, that the two major political parties are doing anybody any favors (themselves or the American people) with the primary system as it is. I also don’t know if the alternatives are any better.

I used to work for the electoral reform organization FairVote, and wrote many thousands of words about ways in which the primary system could be improved, but those improvements always focused on increasing the democratic fairness of the primary system, including holding either a single National Primary Day or having a rotating calendar of primary elections, all to reduce the outsized influence of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina on the process. As I write today, though, I’m not sure we should be having these elections at all.

Obviously, it’s this year’s election that’s making me lose faith in the system. The clearest example of primaries-as-shitshow is the GOP race, where an angry, violent, and happily ignorant band of racists is about to lift Donald Trump to the nomination. There is no way this is a good result, not for the Republicans, and not for the country as a whole, which will be subject to his idiocy and thuggery, and have to go through the motions of treating his candidacy with a show of seriousness. It’s abysmal. And if someone like Cruz were the other “popular” alternative among the GOP primary electorate, that’s no better. He’s a maniac, and such a maniac that even his own lunatic colleagues loathe him.

It’s not the same with the Democratic Party, but it’s still bad. Not because Bernie Sanders, if nominated, would be somehow be a disaster (though he would be far more likely to lose in my opinion). He’d be fine and perfectly respectable, and I’d be proud to vote for him, though I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. But the fact that the choice of the Democratic Party’s nominee is being left largely up to Democratic voters, the supporters of the two candidates are incentivized to vilify the candidate they don’t support. If there were no primary contest being held, Bernie people and Hillary people would overlap, and everyone would be cool with each other, working together toward common goals, even if not all of those goals are shared in precisely equal measure. But since we’re subjecting them to a popular election, we have Bernie supporters trying to convince the world that Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is evil incarnate, a lying, heartless monster who must be destroyed, which of course damages her chances for the general election and overall poisons political discourse among the constituents of the only party that is, right now, serious about governing.

So imagine a scenario in which a presidential nominee is chosen by existing officeholders within a political party, and that’s it. All the party’s governors, Members of Congress, and heck, even the state legislators and mayors and whatnot, all get together, in person or virtually, and argue and debate until they hold a vote, and then pick their party nominees. It has at least the whiff of representative democracy in that all the stakeholders will have been themselves elected, but it avoids the mob-driven death march of the primary campaign.

Or maybe we still have primary elections, but as they have at times been, they are straw polls, beauty pageants, displays of strength and potential support among the grassroots. And after the entirely non-binding straw poll votes are held, the aforementioned party officials take that into account when making their decision.

Or maybe there’s something else that makes more sense. Maybe a board of directors of a party should just hash it out in a room, with or without the smoke. Maybe a randomly chosen “papal conclave” of party stakeholders should figure it out and draft a candidate. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we have a problem with primary elections. They’re producing bad results, either in the candidates they annoint or the damage they do to a party. I can’t say I’m now wholly opposed to them in principle, but I can say that perhaps it’s time to at least consider that we should save all the democracy for Election Day itself.

‘Twas the Night Before Iowa (Which Probably Won’t Matter)

2012 GOP Iowa Caucus winner, President Rick Santorum. Um.
Here’s what I think of the state of the race on the night before the Iowa caucuses.

The polls right now for Iowa are more or less meaningless. Yes, Clinton and Trump are both up a little in the final pre-Iowa poll, but it doesn’t really matter. Save for the poor bastards in single digits, the Iowa caucuses are one of the least predictable “elections” in modern politics. For candidates within a few points of each other in polling, everything can hang on innumerable (and entirely banal) factors: Will it rain? Is there snow? Are people too busy? Are babysitters available? Are there enough cars and vans to bring people to caucus sites? Do enough people give enough of a damn about who becomes the nominee to show up, or is everyone pretty content with whoever winds up winning? Did we call enough people? Did we knock on enough doors? Did we know on too many doors, and call too many people, and become annoying?

Hell, if it’s really close for the Democrats, it could all come down to which campaign has been nicest to O’Malley, as his utter lack of viability in just about every caucus site means his few voters will have to go with a second choice. The candidate O’Malley’s voters like better could decide the whole night.

I was in the Hillary Clinton war room for the 2008 caucuses, and hopes were pretty high. I think the prevailing sentiment was that we would place a strong 2nd (behind Edwards, I thought), but alas, we were trounced by Obama and edged out by Edwards to land at 3rd. Remember the Democratic race in 2004? Wasn’t Howard Dean supposed to win that with Gephardt close behind? They came in 3rd and 4th.

So forget the polls as far as the top tier candidates are concerned. For Clinton/Sanders and Trump/Cruz, this is up in the air.

So while I won’t predict any winners, I will predict this: Iowa won’t really matter. Let’s say Sanders does win, and by a meaningful margin. He could take that momentum, build on his support in New Hampshire, and win big there, too. A rocket-launch to the nomination, right?

Look, it’ll totally suck for Clinton if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary Death Watch will be on full alert. But I can’t for the life of me foresee a scenario where Sanders takes these wins and turns them into victories in South Carolina, Nevada, and the big states for Super Tuesday. Does anyone really think Sanders can win in South Carolina, where the African American vote is the whole ballgame? Or in California? Or New York? It’s possible, of course, but at this point it seems absurd to think so.

I think Iowa is slightly less meaningless for the Republicans, only because a decisive win by Trump could indeed begin the end of the race, for it would certainly catapult him to an even larger victory in New Hampshire than he is already likely to enjoy. I am skeptical, though, of a Trump win in Iowa, simply because I suspect his on-the-ground operation won’t match the religious fervor of Cruz’s supporters. And if Cruz does win, it’s no big news, it’s more or less expected, so the race remains one between him and Trump, and we trudge on. Nothing in the race’s dynamics change as a result of a Cruz victory.

Iowa’s greatest impact will likely be to begin the weeding out of the also-rans. The bottom half of the Democratic candidates more or less lopped themselves off after Iowa in 2008. I can’t see any reason for folks like Fiorina, Santorum, or Huckabee to trudge on once they get shellacked in Iowa. (And I suspect Huckabee is readying to endorse Trump after Iowa, and so a Cruz victory could be heavily dampened by a key establishment-evangelical nod like that.) Alas, Iowa losses likely won’t deter Kasich, Bush, or Christie, who have their hopes pinned on New Hampshire. And Rand Paul seems to be running for something other than the GOP’s presidential nomination, so who knows.

On the Democrats’ side, O’Malley will stay in the race as long as he technically is able. Why? Bernie or Hillary could get hit by a bus or something, and he wants to be ready to fill a spot just in case.

What do I know? A year or so ago, I certainly thought Cruz would be one of the main contenders for the GOP nod, but I also thought Rand Paul would be his main competition. I could be entirely full of it.

But that’s never stopped anyone from making predictions before. And I think at this point in my career, I’ve learned at least something. I can’t wait to find out!

The Democrats’ First Debate: Nothing Changed, and That’s Huge

Photo credit: Hillary Clinton / Foter / CC BY-NC
In a sense, nothing really changed about the dynamics of the race as a result of the first Democratic presidential debate, but that in itself is extremely important. Clinton performed as excellently as I expected, and probably reminded many folks why they liked her to begin with. Sanders also did himself some good by setting himself up as a substantial and passionate contrast to Clinton. With neither of them making any meaningful mistakes, they served to solidify the existing situation, which is a win for Clinton.

O’Malley may have helped himself to a percentage point or two in the polls, if for no other reason than that he was fluid and enthusiastic, and appeared to be a plausible alternative to the current top tier. But he gained nothing that truly effects Clinton’s or Sanders’ positions. I do have to wonder if O’Malley’s slickness came across as sincere or contrived to the average viewer. He was laying it on quite thick at times, and as an actor and a veteran political observer, I don’t trust my own view to know how he comes across to others.

Webb and Chafee performed abysmally. I was genuinely embarrassed for both of them, especially considering that they both seem like good, well-intentioned public servants who would otherwise probably deserve a fair shot at consideration. But Webb was all grouse and resentment (and weirdly threatening China), and Chafee was an unmitigated disaster. I can’t think of anyone in a presidential debate who has ever performed as poorly as Chafee did tonight, and I’m including Quayle. For his own sake I hope he drops out tonight.

But again, Webb and Chafee had no effect on the larger race, and tonight really only served as a chance for voters to rule them out, and perhaps — perhaps — consider O’Malley. Which merely buys O’Malley a point or two at best.

So, as I said, this debate changed very little, other than to settle the race for a while, to where it more or less has been anyway.

With one exception: Joe Biden.

I don’t know if Biden is still considering running, and I’d be shocked if he was. But after tonight, it doesn’t matter. By not participating in this debate, I believe Joe Biden ruled himself out of the race. The fashionably late don’t get to be president, and, learning the lessons of Wesley Clark, Rick Perry, and Fred Thompson, he must know that. Biden is, as of tonight, a non-factor in this primary race.

And that is a big, big win for Hillary Clinton.

Yes, I’m Conflicted About Hillary Clinton. But I’ll Damn Well Get Over It.

Image by Chatham House (CC 2.0)
I have lots of feelings about Hillary Clinton. Heck, I used to work for Hillary Clinton. She had no idea, of course, but for about three months as 2007 turned into 2008, I was a media researcher for her presidential campaign, more or less the guy standing at the castle parapets yelling “incoming!!!” whenever anything of any note whatsoever was said about her in more or less any medium. (It was so stressful and frenetic that my body almost entirely shut down, and I had to quit after being on the job for what were, admittedly, the worst three months of the campaign for her. At one point we actually thought I might have brain cancer!)

(I didn’t.)

Showing up hither and thither in my social media streams this weekend has been this excellent piece at Elle by Rebecca Traister, and it in many ways echoes my own panoply of loves and loathings in regard to Secretary Clinton. For Traister, I gather, the internal conflict is mainly about the ideological boxes Clinton has not checked (or checked too late), versus the burning need — personally for her and for society as a whole — for a brilliant, mega-qualified woman to be, not even just elected president, but even be treated fairly as a presidential candidate.

My conflicts are in a similar vein, but they are more strategic, I suppose, than ideological. Like Traister, I too desperately want us to get over this ridiculous hump and finally, for the love of sweet flappy jeebus, elect a woman president. Like Traister, I fume and nurse ulcers over the grotesque personal scrutiny to which this woman is regularly subjected, the grossly unbalanced way she’s covered as a candidate, and the need the press establishment feels to bring her down, to make her “sorry” for, well, whaddaya got?

But I’m far less ideologically conflicted. I understand that she’s never been the Perfect Liberal. I totally get that my well-meaning friends who support Bernie Sanders do so because he holds positions that satisfy most liberal orthodoxy (which I largely support as well), and that he has skillfully positioned himself as a man of the people who tells it to you straight. It’s probably mostly sincere! And that’s great. Go, Bernie! Seriously!

But that’s not the kind of person who gets shit done from the highest reaches of global power. Running any government is often compared to steering a giant ship, where one can only make minor adjustments to the course at any given time, given the speed, weight, and size of the vessel. Running the U.S. government, including its innumerable foreign-policy tendrils, must be more akin to trying to steer an Imperial Star Destroyer. In the water.

What I’m saying is that being an effective President of the United States means being able to intellectually process vast amounts of data; to have extraordinary insight and empathy into myriad sensibilities, needs, and hopes; to have the grit to make extremely difficult decisions, not just about war and peace or life and death, but about what small concessions to make or what humiliations to endure to advance a larger cause. To put it more starkly, this person needs to be able to wisely and decisively know when to compromise even foundational tenets of morality, democracy, and ethics in order to score a meaningful win for the greater good.

(The Bush administration believed it was doing so when it decided that systematized torture and a doctrine of preemptive war were an acceptable trade for national security and economic pillage. But that’s another thing.)

I’d bet there are only a few people on Earth who can even bring themselves to even make such decisions, let alone make the right ones. I don’t think Bernie Sanders is that kind of person. He’s clearly a good, intelligent man, but frankly, he’s not Machiavellian enough. Not to my tastes. I’m sour on Sanders the presidential candidate because I don’t think he’s ready to confront the ugly and the uglier, and figure out the difference.

Clinton is. This woman is better suited than probably anyone on the planet to steer the star destroyer, nudge by nudge, by crucial and perilously timed fractions of degrees. She’ll have the brains and the guts, I think, to make the tough calls, and even the horrible calls, to do the right thing. Yes, I want The Prince, and I want The Prince that’s on my side.

And guess what, this is also where my conflict sets in. Look at the 2008 campaign, and you tell me if she made all the right horrible calls in order to advance the greater good. Was doing anything suggested by Mark Penn ever a good idea? Was refusing to say outright that Barack Obama was not a Muslim a good idea? Was hiring a staff that bullied and belittled the journalists covering the campaign a good idea? (I was in the room for a lot of those calls.) No, they were not.

So she’s willing to do the dirty work, she’s willing to go for the throat when the times call for it. I’m not 100 percent sure she’s sufficiently wise enough of the time to go for the right throat at the right time. Just as there is something pathological about the press corps’ need to see her suffer, there is something strangely chronic about Clinton’s ability to set her own landmines, and pretend they’re not there. I felt queasy as journalists were tweeting banal (and even at times endearing) personal emails from Clinton’s servers, but I feel just as sick over the idea that she had such a server, and seemed to think nothing would come of it. Why does she (and/or her universe of functionaries) let these things happen?

Ideologically, I’m more or less fine with Clinton. She came to gay marriage late, fine, so did most of anyone in the party who matters. She made the wrong horrible choice on the Iraq vote, but, again, she was hardly alone. (And I’m more sympathetic to foreign adventures than most of my liberal brethren, but come on, even I knew the Iraq invasion was a contrived bullshit boondoggle right off the bat.) But on the vast array of issues before us, she’s on the right side. She “cozies up to Wall Street”? Good! I hope she cozies up to them so close that they don’t even feel it when she sticks a knife in them and bleeds them out.

And the bottom line for me is that we essentially have the choice between a flawed but fiercely powerful and qualified Hillary Clinton, or the political equivalent of an asteroid strike with the election of any of the Republican candidates to the presidency. It’s hard to calculate the damage such an impact would cause, but it would blot out the sun for ages.

To beat whichever craggy planetoid the GOP throws at us, I want the candidate who will come at them with ruthless, superior force. Because I want more, not fewer liberal justices on the Supreme Court. Because I want a stronger wall of separation between church and state. Because I want economic policy that stops simply shoveling money toward the already-rich. Because I want a president who gives two shits about equality, education, science, and fucking nuance.

And I want a goddamned woman president.

So I’ll get over my conflicting feelings. Let’s get this damned star destroyer pointed in the right direction.