Friday, March 21, 2008

Good riddance to the rule breakers

Scanning the landscape at week's end:

There has been a paucity of commentary in this space about Florida and Michigan. And now that the Democratic do-over scenarios have evaporated, I can summarize my reaction in just two words.

Good riddance.

It's really quite simple. The Democratic National Committee, in its attempt to stop the extreme front-loading of the calendar, established rules barring those states from staging primaries in January. Both states were determined to break the rules anyway, by staging primaries in January. The DNC warned that the states would be stripped of their delegates if they broke the rules. The states ignored the threat and broke the rules. They were then stripped of their delegates. Now they have to live with the consequences. Too bad. Deal with it.

Hillary Clinton (who has taken up Michigan's cause only because she desperately needs to find ways to topple frontrunner Barack Obama) claims that this "disenfranchisement" of Michigan will hurt the Democrats in the autumn campaign against John McCain, but that's just spin from a seriously trailing candidate. Six months from now, the Democratic nominee (whoever it is) will be spending a lot of time in Michigan, talking about the kitchen-table economic issues that Michigan voters care about most, issues that typically favor the Democrats, issues that McCain is barely conversant about. Six months from now, the spat over the primary calendar will mean squat to the average Michigan voter. Six months is an eternity in politics.

Meanwhile, what a huge relief it is to learn that Florida will not be conducting a do-over primary. It's akin to getting the news that the lunatic distant cousin in your family will not be coming for Thanksgiving after all. Now we can eat in peace.

Seriously, can you imagine Florida trying to run a newfangled kind of primary, by mail or whatever, with only 60 days notice? Florida in 2000 couldn't even run a general election with four years notice. Then they brought in touchscreen machines, and, sure enough, in 2004, a state legislator in Broward County won his race by 12 votes because some new machines inexplicably failed to record the votes of 134 people; state law required a hand recount, but there was nothing to recount because the machines had no paper receipts. Then, with two more year's notice, another beaut occurred in 2006. On the Gulf coast, a congressional candidate declared victory by a margin of 369 votes; the only problem was, touchscreen machines in Sarasota County failed to record the sentiments of as many as 18,000 voters.

And today? Eight Florida counties are currently junking their touchscreens and changing over to optical-scan voting equipment...and probably wouldn't have been ready in time for any June primary do-over.

I have a smidgen of sympathy for the Florida Democratic party, because it is true that the Republican-run state legislature was primarily responsible for passing the bill that mandated a January primary date for both parties. However, the bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat, state party leaders echoed the desire for a January primary, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wanted it as well. The DNC's threat to strip the delegates was always clear, and the Florida Democrats ignored it. Nor did I ever hear Hillary Clinton cry "disenfranchisement" back when she assumed she'd cruise to the nomination; it was not until this winter, when it became clear she'd need to scrounge for every vote, that she chose to make Florida a moral cause.

Today she insists that the meaningless Florida primary should be retroactively decreed a genuine victory for her, but I'll make two points about that: (1) Floridians were repeatedly warned in advance that the Jan. 29 contest was meaningless, so there's no way of knowing how many prospective voters (sympathetic to Obama or Clinton) decided to simply stay home, and (2) The playing field was tilted in Clinton's favor. Neither candidate actively campaigned in Florida, in accordance with a DNC rule, which meant that Clinton had the advantage because she was universally known already. Obama, at the time, was not. More than Clinton, he needed to be there in person. But he was not. So this imbalance skewed the vote tally as well.

So enough with Florida. We should be happy if the state simply gets its act together in time for November, with all voting machines, of whatever technological nature, in good working order.


The Florida and Michigan meltdowns have further narrowed Clinton's prospects of surpassing Obama in the national popular vote and pledged delegate count. And today, another blow: New Mexico Gov. and former candidate Bill Richardson - twice a member of Bill Clinton's Cabinet - is formally endorsing Obama.

We know that generally the value of endorsements is limited; Ted Kennedy's Obama endorsement couldn't even sway Massachusetts. But Richardson's nod could matter in several ways:

1. Richardson is a superdelegate. He may well have influence over New Mexico's 11 other superdelegates. And, lest we forget, this race has devolved into a national competition for the unpledged superdelegates.

2. Richardson - a popular western governor, and an Hispanic - can help make the case to other superdelegates about Obama's electability. New Mexico has been a swing state in the last two presidential elections. Colorado and Nevada are also western states with large Hispanic populations.

3. Richardson has a lot of foreign policy experience (thanks largely to the Clintons, who must be ticked off today), and he elevates the less experienced Obama simply by the act of vetting him. And we can expect months of buzz about a prospective Obama-Richardson ticket. Which would suit Richardson just fine. And which probably played a role in his thinking.


By the way, Clinton's desperation tactics are getting worse. While trying to inflate her own foreign policy credentials during a speech last Monday, she boasted that she braved "sniper fire" after landing at an airport in Bosnia in 1996. She said, "We just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles."

Now take a look at this photo, snapped on the day in question. Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of the word ran is. A candidate who is already perceived by a majority of Americans as untrustworthy probably shouldn't be spinning tall tales.