Will Hillary Be the Last One to Know It's Over?

Hillary Clinton is dead, at long last; it took one last excruciating election night, with CNN's John King doing his spastic Minority Report routine over a video map of Indiana, to finally do away with her. When it was over, when the last votes were counted in Lake County, Indiana and the mathematical reality sank in, everyone in the world understood that Hillary was cooked except, perhaps, Hillary herself -- and that gesticulating asshole with the boxing gloves who appears behind her at seemingly every victory speech.

Even Hillary's closest friends and supporters started popping out of the woodwork with sad looks on their faces, pleading with HRC to cut the shit already and bow out before this thing gets really embarrassing. Former Clinton pompom carrier Dianne Feinstein even came out with an ominous comment about needing to call Hillary to find out "what the strategy is." As in, What the fuck are you doing? People are starting to stare!

Because mathematically, the game is over. Obama's win in North Carolina all but assures him of being significantly ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count by the time the primaries end. His delegate total grew to 1,854, versus 1,697 for Clinton; his lead in the popular vote expanded to about 700,000. This is not the kind of margin you make up with 57-43 wins in Kentucky and Puerto Rico.

So no more Hillary: no more Rocky references, no more Tom Petty, no more carefully orchestrated leaks of human imperfections mined deep in the anus of Barack Obama's increasingly sullied biography. No more guilt-by-association raps, no more purges of insufficiently ruthless campaign staffers, no more woe-is-me whining about media conspiracies and the "race card" and Florida and Michigan and her empty war chest -- no more whining about being outspent, from a candidate who had eight years of White House chips to cash in. No more tearful "How can you do this to my mom?" phone calls to superdelegates from Chelsea Clinton, no more of a hectoring, red-faced Bill Clinton lecturing us about whatever side of his ass we forgot to kiss that day. The Clintons are finally done. They were a big draw for a long time -- but I think we're all going to be surprised by just how much and how thoroughly we won't miss them once they're finally gone.

If they're finally gone, that is. For in reality, the mathematical situation after North Carolina for Hillary is bleaker than before only by degree. Her situation since about the Potomac primaries has always been hopeless, so for her to stay in this race and keep alive the possibility of some monstrous extra-democratic crisis would hardly be surprising.

Ultimately, that might be the Clintons' real legacy. Their decision to stay in the game and press on when there was no hope of winning through good old-fashioned voting may have finally institutionalized what is becoming a habit in American politics: the fight for power through lawyers and backroom maneuvering instead of votes, and the reflexive, automatic impugning of the legitimacy of the process when the process leaves you a few bits short.

When all's said and done, what may end up being most interesting about this race is that we all knew it wasn't really over, even when the voters said it was over. We've advanced to a stage of our politics where the transfer of power is no longer simply a matter of counting votes: Now we have to wait for the dust to settle, to make sure the secondary, post-election political battle reaffirms the status of the "elected" winner, and the only way we know for sure how things have turned out is to see who's actually sitting in the Oval Office at the end of the fight.

By now, we're pretty much used to this shit. In 2000, the presidency was decided by the Florida secretary of state and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2004, we all hesitated to believe it was completely over until John Kerry decided not to sic his lawyers on the Ohio results. And in 2008, the Democratic nomination will be decided by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee -- a group of people that until this week had never been heard of by anybody at all, anywhere. On May 31st, the committee will decide whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida -- delegates the same committee banned from the convention as punishment for moving up their primaries. And the math governing that committee may be very different from the humdrum voter math we all watched on CNN as the ballots were tallied in North Carolina.

To wit: If Hillary Clinton has more juice on that rules committee than Barack Obama does, they might very well seat Michigan and Florida, and Hillary might actually win this thing. And anyone who doesn't recognize the significance of yet another episode of this sort of backroom cabal settling things has never lived, as I have, in a Third World country.

In places like Russia and Uzbekistan, the votes are less important than who's counting them, and the only math that matters is the aggregate of a bunch of phone calls whizzing across the capital in the middle of the night, in which the only important considerations are purely geographic in nature: Who's controlling the TV stations? The election commission? The police station near the Kremlin? The army in the Western District? At 4:08 a.m., which (read: whose) federal judge is most likely to answer his telephone? Like a game of poker, you can't guess the outcome until you know who's holding what cards.

That's where we are now, in this Clinton-Obama race. The voting thing is basically done. The rest of it comes down to a bunch of frenzied phone calls between lawyers, party hacks and superdelegates, a bunch of people you've never heard of before and will never hear of again. This ain't democracy -- it's approximocracy.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is supposed to be the orderly transfer of power -- having a predictable, functioning electoral system in place, one whose methodology is known and understood by voters and candidates before the contests begin. But here's the hilarious thing about this 2008 deal: No one knows how it all winds up from here. Not even George McGovern, the man who's been in the absolute epicenter of this Democratic Party system's evolution over the course of the last 40 years or so.

Like a lot of people in the party, McGovern -- who endorsed Hillary Clinton last fall (mainly because "she and Bill worked their butts off for me in '72") -- thinks it will be a disaster if the nomination is awarded to a candidate who trails in the delegate count. "Yeah, I think it would be -- especially if that person also trails in the popular vote," he tells me. "That's why I'm going to do what I can to help bring this thing to a conclusion."

But what can you do to achieve that? How does it end from here?

"Well," he says, "I don't know exactly. Talk to the superdelegates and try to convince them to wind it up, I guess."

Back in 1968, McGovern chaired a commission that helped institute reforms intended to make the primary system more democratic, changing the process from the traditional winner-take-all format (the one still used by Republicans) to the proportional-representation deal so lamented by Clinton supporters today. By linking delegate counts to the percentage of popular vote in each state, McGovern helped ensure that each person's vote counted for something, and would be represented at the convention.

But a little democracy proved to be a messy thing. McGovern's reforms were blamed for the Carter administration, in which the party elected a president whose platform clashed with that of his own Democratic Congress. They were also blamed for a series of hilarious convention maneuvers, including one in which established party leaders like Tip O'Neill were ousted as delegates in favor of teenagers. In 1982, the party establishment moved to restore its influence by creating superdelegates, a permanent sect of party leaders who now control 20 percent of the convention vote.

McGovern, who opposed the superdelegate idea in 1968, ended up supporting it after the O'Neill incident. Ironically, one of the reasons he changed his mind was to prevent a situation in which the voters chose a clearly overmatched candidate. "In the event the majority made an obviously stupid decision," he says, "you'd have these party leaders, these experienced people, to help correct that."

The superdelegate system, in other words, was ostensibly designed to create a more politically harmonious balance between the party grass roots and the party establishment. In their first outing, in 1984, the superdelegates handed the nomination to Walter Mondale over Gary Hart -- hardly an auspicious debut. Since then, they haven't been called on to decide a close race, but they've kept the deciding vote in their back pockets, just in case -- laying the groundwork for the hideous nomination-by-backroom-deal scenario we're threatened with today.

Up until now, the chief issues in this campaign have been a smattering of pointless media concoctions -- "working" for change versus "hoping" for change, "pretty words" versus "experience," the Rev. Wright versus Bosnian tarmac, "elitism" versus "political calculation." Determining the winner has therefore been mainly a matter of figuring out which of these hunks of bullshit have had the broadest and most effective stink, a process we media geniuses can track and poll with mathematical precision.

But the dynamic ruling the superdelegates -- the race going on behind the scenes, over the phone lines -- has been harder to discern. The key to this year's smoke-filled room, it turns out, dates back to 1996, when all Democratic members of Congress were given automatic status as superdelegates. And members of Congress, by design, don't care about how the people of America vote -- they care about how people in their districts vote. When it comes to picking a nominee, most congressmen have only one question, a calculation of undiluted self-interest: Which candidate is most likely to help me win re-election?

It's in this area that the math seems to be tilting toward Obama. "It's a question of who's most likely to help the Democrats in November down ticket," Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia said recently. "Obama generates more excitement than anyone since Bobby Kennedy." In 2006, the Democrats reseized the majority in Congress mainly by winning seats in traditionally Republican districts in red states. To preserve that majority, many congressional superdelegates from red states seem to be favoring Obama, whose demonstrated ability to turn out new voters and independents appears to be a determining factor. "Obama will bring new people into the process in Southern states, there's no doubt about it," said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Democratic whip. "In these Southern states, he's bringing out more people, young people, African-Americans. They're being energized by him."

Obama's advantage in states carried by Bush in 2000 and 2004, like Idaho and Missouri, may end up carrying the subterranean superdelegate battle for him. So far, he's racked up 124 endorsements from superdelegates in red states, compared to 88 for Hillary. To confirm the math for worried House members, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has even begun poll testing to see how the choice of presidential nominee could affect various House races. Many in Congress fear that Hillary is simply too polarizing -- especially to red-state residents whose votes will decide the composition of the House.

Given the way house members are lining up behind Obama, Hillary has only one path to victory -- chaos, lunacy, the strong arm and dark, secret, cloak-and-dagger bullshit.

We know, because the superdelegates themselves are admitting it, that party officials whose votes are still in play are being besieged by phone calls from the political Mount Olympus. Ed Tinsley, a county commissioner from Montana, got two calls apiece from Madeleine Albright, Chelsea Clinton and Tom Daschle. It got so intense after a while that Tinsley's friends started to prank-call him, pretending to be various Important People clamoring for his support.

"Yeah, my buddies were goofing around a little bit there," he says with a laugh. "It's slowed down some since I declared for Obama -- but I still hear from the Clinton campaign, e-mails telling me Obama can't win and so on."

In California, where many superdelegates pledged to Clinton are reportedly considering changing their minds, the heat has been unrelenting. One superdelegate recently reported getting at least 100 letters from the Clinton camp insisting that she toe the line. Across the board, there have been reports of superdelegates strong-armed and badgered, with the angry exchange between Bill Richardson and the Clintons (whose supporters called him a "Judas" after he committed to Obama) being the most famous. The high number of superdelegates who refuse to discuss their preferences publicly for fear of getting on the wrong side of the winner speaks to the fear of negative consequences that surrounds this whole process.

Moreover, in the courting of superdelegates there is tremendous potential for corruption, as the system is almost totally unregulated. Craig Holman, a legislative representative at Public Citizen, describes the superdelegate system as an ethical "Wild West," one in which no rules prevent candidates from channeling favors or even money to uncommitted party officials. "This is the first time we're seeing the potential for mischief," Holman says. One easy way to buy off superdelegates, he suggests, would be to hire them as media consultants, allowing them to take a cut of the candidate's political advertising. "Buyers generally get five percent commissions," Holman says. "That's a lot of money, because these media buys can be in the millions."

The reality, though, is that no one really knows what the fuck is going on now over the phone lines. All we know is that D-day is May 31st and that between now and then -- unless Hillary bows out -- the orderly and rational process of primary season is going to give way to the clubs-and-stones Hobbesian jungle that is unregulated, raw politics, the politics of using any means necessary to fight your enemy. While we wait for this process to play itself out, we are as helpless as Chinese citizens waiting for the Politburo to hand them a new premier, or Catholics watching the chimney in St. Peter's Square for word of a new pope.

Should we wind up with another sideways, party-rigged result, a country that has already gone through hanging chads in 2000 and dark rumors in Ohio in 2004 may find itself wondering exactly where it stands in the hierarchy of world democracies. Above Belarus but below Nicaragua? Looking up at Zimbabwe but down at Pakistan? No matter what, we're likely looking at the last gasp of a superdelegate system that almost certainly will be reformed by next time around.

"It's undemocratic," says Holman. "It should be thrown in the trash."

"Yeah," agrees Tinsley. "People are probably going to want to take a look at changing it, no matter what happens."

In the end, whatever happens, it's impossible to get around the fact that all of this, really, is the responsibility of one person: Hillary Clinton. We headed irrevocably down this path toward a democratic crisis the moment she decided to stay in the race despite impossible mathematical odds. That is a heavy thing for one person to bring about all by herself, on purpose and with her eyes wide open. The question we all might have to start thinking about soon is Why? What the hell was she thinking? Was she trying to drag us into a Banana Republican coup scenario on purpose? Or is there something even simpler at work?

"Sometimes," says McGovern, "the candidate is the last one to know it's over."


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