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A Bird, a Plane? No, It’s Superdelegates!

The Democratic Party’s special class of entitled and unelected VIP delegates helps explain what’s wrong with the way we choose our presidential candidates.

Part of the Series

Last week, our suggestion that Hillary Clinton call for the resignations of her pals Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz got a big response. But a few people misunderstood what we were saying.

Some thought Bill Moyers and I were calling for Clinton herself to step aside (we weren’t). Others thought we somehow believed Clinton actually had the power to fire Emanuel (of course she doesn’t). Wasserman Schultz is a different story; the demand for her resignation as DNC chair grows by the day and Clinton doubtless will have a voice as to whether she stays or goes (on top of which, for the first time since she entered the House of Representatives, Wasserman Schultz’s Florida congressional seat is being challenged in a Democratic primary by attorney and former Bernie Sanders advisor Tim Canova).

Using the rhetorical suggestion that she and Rahm take a hike — each of them a symbol of the current tone-deaf and corporate-enslaved state of the Democratic Party — was a way of easing into the idea that the party’s elite is as clueless about the disillusionment of the party’s traditional base as the GOP establishment has been about Donald Trump’s ascent. At their peril, the muckety-mucks of both parties ignore the anger and resist the demand for change that have fueled not only Trump but the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well, albeit the Sanders movement is as progressive as Trump’s is brutish.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

One of the more troubling aspects of the Democrats and their nomination process is something we touched upon in last week’s piece: the 712 or so “superdelegates,” about 15 percent of the total (and 30 percent of the majority needed to win the nomination) who will cast ballots at the July convention in Philadelphia. They include President Obama and Vice President Biden, 239 Democratic members of the House and Senate, 21 sitting governors, 437 Democratic National Committeemen and women, and a category referred to as “distinguished party leaders” — former presidents and veeps, ex-congressional leaders and erstwhile presidential nominees.

These superdelegate VIPs are chosen not by the voters in this year’s primaries or caucuses but selected by the party solely for their status as members of the Democratic upper crust. As we wrote last week, Wasserman Schultz recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper that their appointment is necessary so entitled incumbents and party leaders don’t have to run for the position “against grassroots activists.”

(Just a few weeks later, though, in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network, Wasserman Schultz swung her logic ’round 180 degrees. The superdelegates exist, she now declared, “to make sure that party activists who want to be delegates to the convention don’t have to run against much better-known and well-established people at the district level.” So which is it? Neither really makes total sense.)

This whole superdelegate thing started back in 1984, when, after the devastating presidential defeat of George McGovern in 1972 and President Jimmy Carter’s landslide reelection loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, it was determined that experienced party stalwarts should be made delegates to fend off fringe efforts to divert the mainstream. Of course, the introduction of the superdelegates that year didn’t keep Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale from being mauled by the congenial Reagan reelection juggernaut.

Nevertheless, the perceived wisdom has become that, “Lest those pesky Democratic grass-roots activists and loser-lover types be inclined to drive the party over a leftward-hanging cliff, the establishment is supposed to step in to ensure that we nominate the electable candidate.” Those are the words of Democratic establishment member Susan Estrich, who apparently coined the word “superdelegates” and opposed the idea back when she was supporting the presidential aspirations of Teddy Kennedy. Now that she’s part of the higher echelon, Estrich has reversed her position. “How time changes things,” she writes. You bet.

Technically, superdelegates are not officially bound to a candidate until that moment the first ballot roll call begins on the convention floor although the vast majority of them have announced their support for Hillary Clinton. (This is why up to now when tallies add up pledged delegates and superdelegates, Clinton seems to have such an unshakeable lead over Sanders.)

But as Susan Estrich would say, this can change. So it was in 2008 when superdelegates who had announced their support for Clinton changed their minds as Barack Obama notched up victory after victory. And theoretically, so it is this year as Bernie Sanders supporters, at the start virulently opposed to superdelegates as an obstacle to the will of the people, are now pursuing them as their candidate has achieved more success than anticipated.

(Sanders himself has described superdelegates as “problematic” and said they should vote for whichever candidate has carried their state’s primary or caucus, also noting, “I think I am a stronger candidate to defeat Trump than Secretary Clinton and I think many of the superdelegates understand that.”)

In truth, the existence of the superdelegates is rather like congressional filibuster rules or other arcane methods of manipulating the system — those they hurt are against, those they help are in favor — but when the roles are flipped, suddenly, those who were opposed find something to like in the rules as the shoe slips from one foot to the other.

But like so many of those rules, superdelegates symbolize something that has to go: the entrenched, inside-the-Beltway embrace of power and influence by the Democratic illuminati that does little for the poor and middle class and everything for the one percent that writes the big checks.

Just last week, Fredreka Schouten of USA Today wrote that through the end of February, “Fundraising in the presidential contest has zoomed past the $1 billion mark, fueled by the dozens of super-wealthy Americans bankrolling super PACs that have acted as shadow campaigns for White House contenders.”

And in late February, Jeff Naft at ABC News reported, “… When you remove elected officials from the superdelegate pool, at least one in seven of the rest are former or current lobbyists registered on the federal and state level, according to lobbying disclosure records. That’s at least 67 lobbyists who will attend the convention as superdelegates.” A majority of that 67 say they’re supporting Hillary Clinton.

Last summer, Wasserman Schultz’s Democratic National Committee lifted a ban on lobbyists making donations to cover the costs of convention-related events, a precursor to the DNC’s February rollback of Barack Obama’s ban on contributions to the party from political action committees and federal lobbyists.

Anyone who’s attended any of the recent Democratic Party national conventions can attest that amidst all the confetti, assorted hoopla and solemn testaments of democracy at work, there are outrageous displays of conspicuous consumption as law firms, lobbyists, consultants and their corporate clients manipulate the funding rules and compete to see who can create the swankiest, most excessive shindig. With the lifting of that lobbyist cash ban, Philadelphia could be bigger than ever.

It will be one giant blowout for sure, and a safe bet that the superdelegates will be whooping it up with many of their richest and most persuasive big wheel friends. No need to fight for your right to party, superdelegates. This is their gift to you. Just ignore the price tag attached.