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Could Republicans Pick the Democratic Nominee?

In both Michigan and Florida it was Republicans who fomented the move-up of primaries to dates out-of-line with the DNC calendar.
 
 
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Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean came out of hiding last week to announce that there is no reason to rush to resolve the fate of Florida and Michigan. He said he was confident that these delegations, disqualified in 2007 by Dean's own Rules Committee, would be seated at the August convention -- but, apparently, only after a nominee is chosen, which he predicted would occur by July 1. This modern-day Metternich, whose two-fisted handling of this two-state controversy has already had more impact on the 2008 race than his candidacy did on the race in 2004, is promising to mediate the dispute once it's already settled.

The Dean plan is that these two swing states -- big enough to decide the nomination or general election -- will eventually be granted "virtual" seats at the convention because, as Dean imaginatively put it in an AP interview, "the campaigns believe that kind of deal is premature right now." Since one campaign (Hillary Clinton's) was amenable to redoes, even financing Michigan's, and the other campaign (Barack Obama's) opposed every feasible proposition, it is, in a strange way, true that the two sides weren't collectively ready for a deal.

In all the buzz about the media's pro-Obama tilt, its indifference to his resistance to including these states in the "actual" nominating process is its most disturbing favor, especially since this brand of "conventional politics," as Obama would put it, flies in the face of his contention that "the people" should pick the nominee. Obama's only proposal so far has been to split the delegates evenly, just like he and Michelle parcel out Christmas presents to their two daughters.

Of course, the column inches and moments of air time spent on how and why these two states and their 366 delegates have been banished adds up to less than the attention devoted to, say, the Wyoming caucus, where a 2,066-vote Obama margin gave him a big enough delegate boost to virtually cancel out Hillary Clinton's 329,000-vote margin in the five March races.

The body count that the mainstream media has regurgitated out of Florida and Michigan is that 2.3 million Democrats voted in primaries that broke the rules, leaving the DNC with no choice but to level both villages, even if the collateral damage might include the party's prospects of carrying those disenfranchised states in November. The DNC and the MSM appear to have simultaneously concluded that even Clinton's 300,000-vote win in Florida, where both candidates competed on a level playing field, shouldn't be counted in the popular vote tally, a calculation that appears nowhere in DNC rules and turns 1.7 million Democratic voters into ghosts.

The irony is that the drumbeat for Clinton's withdrawal -- coming on the heels of her recent wins and right before what may be her biggest in Pennsylvania -- is rooted in the collapse of the effort to redo Michigan and Florida. The theory is that she should quit because there is no way she can win, and that there is no way she can win because two states she could win, at least one of which she actually did win, will not be counted until she gets out. Barack Obama would thus become the nominee -- not because of an honestly earned if precariously narrow lead in the final national vote, but because of two elections he would not let happen.

If that sounds like a curious way to end a nominating contest that 30 million to 33 million voters will participate in before it's done, even stranger is that the DNC is following only some of its rules -- and that the real culprits who caused this debacle are Republicans, who are now relishing the catfight they provoked.

Dems Take the Hit for the GOP

The Republican role is not some irrelevant anecdote. The DNC is charged, under its rules, to determine whether the Democrats in a noncompliant state made a "good faith" effort to abide by the party's electoral calendar, and to impose the full weight of its available penalties, namely a 100 percent takedown of a state's delegation, only if Democratic leaders in that state misbehaved. So the fact that it was Republicans who fomented the move-up of primaries in both these states to dates out-of-line with the DNC calendar is at the heart of the matter.

The rules also demand that the DNC's 30-member Rules and Bylaws Committee conduct "an investigation, including hearings if necessary" into these matters. The purpose of such a probe is to figure out if Democratic leaders in a state that did move up "took all provable, positive steps and acted in good faith" to either "achieve legislative changes" to bring a state into compliance or to "prevent legislative changes" that took a state out of compliance. A DNC spokesman could not point to any real "investigation" the party conducted of the actions of "relevant Democratic party leaders or elected officials," as the rules put it. All that happened with Florida, for example, was that two representatives of the state party made a pitch for leniency immediately before the Rules Committee voted for sanctions.

What a probe might have discovered was a rationale for doing, at worst, what the RNC did to its own overeager primary schedulers in the same two states -- cutting the delegations by half. That's precisely the penalty specified in DNC rules, but the committee, exercising powers it certainly had the legal discretion to exercise, upped the ante as far as it could. In a bizarre reversal of public policy, the RNC, surely aware that the principal miscreants in both states were Republicans, applied a sane yet severe sanction. The Democrats opted for decapitation.

The presumption of much of the national coverage about Michigan, to start with, has been that the Dems did this one to themselves -- a presumption based, in large part, on Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm's endorsement of a January 15 vote, a date far ahead of the anticipated February 9 primary. All Clinton-backer Granholm did, however, was a sign a bill. The bill originated in a Republican-controlled Senate and passed by a 21-to-17 straight party-line vote -- with every Democrat casting a no vote.

Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, is, like Granholm, seen as a prime player behind the state's acceleration of the primary calendar. But Crist isn't half the Florida story; Marco Rubio, a Jeb Bush protégé who runs the nearly 2-to-1 Republican Florida House, drove that bill through the legislature like it was a tax cut limited by law to top GOP donors.

Indeed, the tracks under this train wreck trace back, in each case, to Republican maneuvers in state legislatures, political no- man's-lands for all who've blithely dismissed the disenfranchisement of the millions of registered Florida and Michigan Democrats.

Michigan: Republicans on the Bench and in the Statehouse

Let's start with Michigan, whose Democratic chair Mark Brewer is a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the national party and in that capacity voted to sanction Florida -- a pretty good indication that he wasn't a great champion of challenging the DNC calendar in his own state. Brewer in fact declared the Republican-sponsored move-up bill unacceptable from the start.

When it weaved its way through the divided Michigan legislature last August, only 29 of the state's 75 Democratic legislators (in the House and Senate) supported it. A week after the bill cleared the Senate over unified Democratic objections, these 29 Democrats in the House voted for it, precisely the same number that voted against it or abstained (22 and seven). It was 38 Republican yes votes in the House that made it law. While Democrats like the governor, U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and DNC committeewoman Debbie Dingell favored moving the primary date up, it was a Republican state senator, Cameron Brown, who proposed the January 15 date. Levin and Dingell only supported that date when they concluded that the DNC was allowing other states, like New Hampshire, to defy the party's prescribed schedule while threatening Michigan with sanctions if it shifted its date.

And Levin and Dingell certainly weren't calling the shots for the Democrats in the legislature. Andy Dillon, the Democratic House speaker who'd voted for the move-up initially, walked away from the early primary in November, almost a month before the DNC voted to strip the state of its delegation. When two court rulings found the move-up bill unconstitutional for technical reasons, giving Democratic state legislators who initially voted for it a chance to reconsider, they took it. Dillon and his House Democrats refused to support a bill that would've protected the January 15 date from threatened judicial cancellation by correcting the technical deficiency. The Senate, again voting along party lines, quickly adjusted the bill to the court decisions, but Dillon refused to allow a vote in the House. All of this suggests a "good faith" effort to block an early primary -- as required by DNC rules.

Had not the state's highest court overturned the earlier decisions by a 4-to-3 vote just days before absentee ballots had to be mailed out, the early primary would not have been held. Significantly, all four of the judges who voted to allow the election were Republicans, and two of the judges who voted against it were Democrats.

In fact, it was a Democratic political consultant who brought the lawsuit that almost killed the primary. While the Republican state party filed an amicus brief in support of the bill, the Democrats took a barrage of editorial potshots in the Detroit Free Press , the Detroit News , the Flint Journal , and other papers for refusing to stand up for the state's interest. Salivating over all the attention and revenue that would come with an early primary, the papers accused Democrats of "withering," "carrying water for presidential candidates," and "blocking a bill to rescue the election." State GOP chair Saul Anuzis declared: "The Michigan Democrats and the House Democrats in particular appear willing to blow up the primary for petty, political, selfish, self-preservationist motives, to protect their hides."

Even before the court rulings, 19 Democrats in the House co-sponsored an October bill to repeal the one that authorized the election, including eight members who'd initially voted for the January 15 date. That bill was doomed from the outset since the Senate would never agree, but it was a measure of how fiercely Democrats had come to oppose the early primary. The ultimate result in Michigan, with a triumphant Clinton the only major candidate on the ballot, is, without a doubt, a Republican result.

In Florida, Crushed by a Republican Supermajority

The Republicans don't just control both houses of the Florida legislature. Their combined 103-to-57 majority allowed them to dictate the terms of the bill that moved the primary to January 29. It is true that all but one of the state's Democratic legislators supported the bill. But a closer look reveals that vote to be more an indication of a realistic and productive compromise with the ruling Republicans than any intent to breach Democratic rules.

Florida's leading news outlets, just like Michigan's, converted an early primary into a matter of state patriotism, and that point of view, coupled with the mathematical inability to even slow the Republican push, forced Democrats to roll over.

Another factor attracting Democratic votes in the legislature for the bill was one the DNC should certainly appreciate. Governor Crist threw a reform long sought by Florida Democrats into the bill: a mandatory paper trail for all votes cast in future elections. "The Democrats have been fighting for a paper trail bill since 2000," said State Senator Nan Rich, "and Governor Bush never would support it. So finally we got a governor who was willing to support it and it ended up connected to the early primary bill. That was unfortunate. If the paper trail hadn't been there, I believe we Democrats would've all voted no. Still, if all the Republicans had voted one way and all the Democrats had voted another way, the bill would've passed." (This Christmas tree bill -- whose title alone was 154 lines long -- had something special for everyone. It would even enable Crist to run as John McCain's vice presidential candidate, revoking a ban against state officials running for federal office.)

But "the driving force behind the move," as the Tampa Tribune put it, was 36-year-old House speaker Marco Rubio, who announced that pushing the primary up was a top goal before he took over the House at the start of 2006. Branded a "Jeb acolyte" by the Florida press, Rubio, a Cuban from West Miami married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, was given a gold samurai sword by Bush in a passing-of-the-conservative-mantle gesture in 2005. Rubio is a member of a wired Florida law firm whose chairman is so close to Bush that he rushed down to the county jail when the governor's daughter Noelle was arrested on a drug-related charge. When Rubio's term as speaker ends later this year, he is slated to go to work for a think tank headed by a Jeb Bush business associate. The primary bill originated with Rubio and ultimately passed the House unanimously -- but only after Democrats made what they knew would be a losing effort to alter it.

Martin Kiar and Mary Brandenburg, House Democrats who were cosponsors of the bill, tried to amend it. "We offered an amendment on the floor shifting the date to one within the Democratic party rules," said Brandenburg. "The Democrats all voted for it, and Republicans all voted against it." Actually, the Kiar/Brandenburg proposal did not completely comply with DNC directives, but it was a signal of the concerns Florida Dems had about the move-up legislation. Said Kiar: "No matter what, whether we supported it or cosponsored it, the Republican majority was going to push it through."

When the DNC sanctioned Florida, it critiqued the efforts of the Democratic leaders in both houses, suggesting that they'd merely gone through the motions of feigned opposition. But the House cosponsor of the bill, David Rivera, literally laughed on the floor at the Democratic amendment, according to the House Democrats. Going through the motions was all the outgunned Democrats could do. A DNC critic of Florida Democrats was reduced in a recent New York Times op-ed to citing remarks supporting the early primary made by state leaders after it was a fait accompli, likely because she couldn't make a case about their conduct before the Republican legislature set the date.

Some Democrats Are More Equal Than Others

The Democratic national committeeman who introduced the motion on the party's Rules Committee to deprive Florida of all its delegates -- a precursor to the Michigan decision a few months later -- was Ralph Dawson, a New York lawyer who was Howard Dean's Yale roommate and an advisor to Dean's 2004 campaign. Dawson's role was seen as a signal of Dean's appetite for a kick-ass rebuke.

As much as the DNC tries to pretend otherwise, it had choices. In fact, it later showed understandable leniency to three other states who changed their primary dates -- New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina -- seating all their delegates. The tough love treatment was reserved for Michigan and Florida.

The national party had tried -- before New Hampshire's case wound up on its docket -- to leave the impression that zero tolerance was automatic once violations of the schedule occur. Back in June, a DNC spokeswoman, for example, told the Associated Press that neither Dean nor the Rules Committee "has the power to waive the rules for any state," explaining that "these rules can be changed only by the full DNC." Yet a few months later, on the same day that the Rules Committee stripped Michigan of its delegates, it waived the rules for New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, each of which had also moved up their primaries.

Though Dawson and others on Rules now say, as they did in recent interviews, that states whose contests were always scheduled before February 5 were free to shift dates without sanction, that's not what the delegate selection rules adopted in 2006 say. Those rules provided an automatic 50 percent loss of delegates for any state party that moved its contest to any day "prior to or after the dates" spelled out by the DNC.

That's why Rules powerhouse Donna Brazile said she would "grudgingly support the waiver," warning New Hampshire shortly before the December committee vote that "the days of 'privilege' may end soon."

Not only did "first-primary-or-die" New Hampshire switch from January 22 to January 8, it moved ahead of Nevada, whose January 19 caucus had been deliberately scheduled by the DNC to precede New Hampshire's. But New Hampshire's Democrats got a DNC waiver because their back was up against the wall, due to a decision by the South Carolina Republican Party to move its primary up to January 19. That unilateral decision -- which the Carolina Democrats declined to join in -- forced New Hampshire's hand. The waiver was, in other words, a reasonable response to a Republican provocation. What's unclear is why one Republican provocation is more equal than another. (Once New Hampshire moved, Iowa had to adjust as well. South Carolina Democrats ultimately made a minor switch for other reasons.)

While the DNC implicitly challenged the "good faith" of the Democratic opposition to the Republican moves in Florida and Michigan, it seemed far less interested in gauging what New Hampshire Democrats were doing. The head of the South Carolina GOP actually traveled to Concord, New Hampshire, to announce the decision to move his state's primary up. He stood in the Executive Council chambers of the statehouse with Secretary of State William Gardner and Representative James Splaine, a Democrat who led the legislative efforts to protect the state's first-primary tradition.

Democratic governor John Lynch was at a funeral when the press conference occurred, but his spokesman said Lynch "has faith in Bill Gardner" and "supports whatever Bill decides." And Lynch, who had already derided the DNC decision to put Nevada ahead of New Hampshire, was clearly pleased that the acceleration of the South Carolina Republican primary date was giving Gardner all the justification he needed to squeeze back ahead of Nevada. New Hampshire officials even called the maneuver an "alliance" with South Carolina Republicans. Gardner promptly chose a new date 11 days before Nevada, defying the schedule that the DNC had issued.

The RNC, a veritable model of consistency in these matters, stripped New Hampshire of half its delegates over the date change, even though it was unmistakably prompted by the Republican maneuver in South Carolina. But Howard Dean and company held their fire this time, examining extenuating circumstances with an understanding they refused to extend to Michigan and Florida. In the end, they changed the rules in the middle of the game, throwing the book at some states and discarding it altogether for others.

The inconsistency on New Hampshire aside, DNC officials have come up with one other argument for why they were so tough on Michigan and Florida. Dean's spokesman Damien LaVera said in an email to Huffington Post that, despite the unmistakable references in the rules to testing the "good faith" of a state's "elected officials" and examining a state's "legislative" efforts, the DNC's rules "apply to a state party plan, not state legislatures or elected officials." LaVera insisted that the only standard their Rules Committee judges compliance by is what state parties do, and that the parties in Michigan and Florida had options other than the state-designated primaries. A DNC official claimed that the Michigan party had sponsored so-called "firehouse caucuses" in the past and could have set their own date and done them again, ignoring the state-run January 15 primary. The Florida party, the DNC source added, was "offered $880,000" by the DNC to host their own caucus on a date in compliance with the DNC schedule and chose to participate, instead, in the state-financed primary, a "bad faith" decision.

But Florida party officials said the $880,000 would've only covered the cost of 150 caucus sites, with the capacity to draw a maximum of 150,000 voters out of the state's 4 million Democrats. "It wasn't a real offer," a spokesman said. Michigan's party would have had to self-finance caucuses, which, even with added Internet and mail voting, drew only 165,000 voters in 2004, a fraction of the 600,000 who voted in 2008. Stripping both states of their full delegations because the state parties in each refused to run these limited-participation caucuses -- which would have occurred a couple of weeks after an official, state-financed primary -- is a bit like punishing Democrats because they like democracy.

Obama's Backers -- and the Road to the Nomination

The DNC critique of Florida's noncompliance included a reference to the fact that a Democratic state senator was the initial sponsor of the move-up bill in that house, which was seen as a sign of eagerness on the part of some Democratic leaders to break the rules. That senator was Jeremy Ring, an Obama supporter. Obama even named Ring's 2006 campaign manager to run his statewide Florida effort. Ring was such a champion of the early primary that when Obama, like all the other candidates, supported the sanctions and agreed not to campaign in the state, Ring withdrew his endorsement.

When Governor Crist signed the bill at a ceremony in West Palm Beach, the man at his side was Bob Wexler, the chair of Obama's Florida campaign. Wexler wasn't there because he wanted to defy Howard Dean. He was there for the same reason that almost all the Democrats in the legislature voted for the bill. He is the state's leading foe of paperless voting systems and filed two suits against them. He saw the bill as the governor's fulfillment of a campaign pledge "to make Florida a model state for the nation in terms of our election system."

Similarly, all three of the House Democrats who endorsed Obama -- Coleman Young II, Bert Johnson, and Aldo Vagnozzi -- voted in favor of the bill to push the Michigan date forward. When Obama later took his name off the Michigan ballot, Young and Johnson became sponsors of the bill to cancel the election they had just voted to authorize.

The support of Obama's principal backers in both states for the move-up bills was hardly consequential, but it does raise questions about his current opposition to any counting or recounting of these states. If bad faith is the DNC's standard, Obama doesn't have to look too far to find alleged examples of it, and to recognize that the national party might be unfairly characterizing what the leaders in these states did.

Imagining a convention without delegations from these large and politically volatile states has become the nightmare of every thinking Democrat. Polls indicate that a nominee who refuses to count the 1.7 million Floridians who voted in a level-playing field primary, or to find a way for them to vote again, will wind up wasting whatever time and money he or she spends there in the general election campaign. As close as the general election vote in Michigan has been in recent years, even a small margin of voters disgruntled by the state's Democratic lockout could push it into the GOP column. Obama's stonewalling about both states may offer short-term advantages, but two delegations denied seating because of his maneuvers may well be seen as contrary to his populist rationale now -- and crippling to his candidacy in November.

Ed Pozzuoli, the Republican chair of Broward County, recalls the Florida showdown of 2000, when he says Democrats taunted Republicans, insisting that they should "let every vote count." He gloats now: "I guess that's changed in eight years." He's hardly the only one chortling over the likely consequence of what he calls the "draconian" Democratic spiking of his state's delegation.

What started out years ago as Howard Dean's 50-state organizing strategy for the national party now looks like a 48-state electoral one. Michigan and Florida could become the Ralph Nader of 2000, the great regret that delivers the country once again to four years of darkness.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

 
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