Friday, May 25 , 2018, 12:50 am | Overcast 59º


Susan Estrich: The Superdelegate Primary

It was January 1982, and the Hunt Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., to decide on the rules that would govern the selection of the nominee in 1984.

I was a "Kennedy" member of the drafting committee, which was basically composed of Kennedy members (those loyal to Ted Kennedy and determined to protect his interests for '84) and the Mondale people (the Mondale '84 team).

Who else would want to spend endless hours figuring out (usually incorrectly) which rule changes would help their future candidate and which would hurt them?

The Mondale people, in our meetings, had been pushing hard to bring back party leaders and elected officials (PLEOs, we called them) as automatic, uncommitted delegates.

The party leaders were basically the members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) along with Democratic governors, senators and members of the House, who wanted to run in these uncontrollable delegate elections even less than DNC members did.

Everyone got the game: the Mondale people wanted to give the establishment more power, because they thought that, between Mondale and Kennedy, the establishment would pick Mondale (in fact, Mondale locked up the nomination, albeit not against Kennedy, on the last day of the primary season by dialing for the delegates to put him over the top); we Kennedy people thought the same thing, which is why we opposed it.

But you can't exactly stand there and say that you're against giving automatic delegate status to hundreds of new delegates, including members of Congress and governors, because you figure they'll favor your opponent. You need a better excuse.

I actually thought of one.The rules of the Democratic Party require that each delegation be equally divided between men and women and fairly represent minority voters, but while the DNC is equally divided, the rest of the automatic delegates would be overwhelmingly male.

So not only were "they" proposing to destroy equal division but they were going to do it by creating a class of overwhelmingly white male superdelegates (I really did make up the term) with the power to choose who to support without regard to the votes of the citizens of their states.

I wrote a paper on this, which my old friend and drafting committee colleague Elaine Kamarck (a Mondale person) happened to save, which is how the late, great Bill Safire gave me credit many years later. 

Once I wrote the paper, I set about looking for a member of the Commission to carry the argument and found my old friend Maxine Waters, who had played a leading role for the Kennedy team on the platform in 1980. Maxine was rearing to go. We all planned to meet the night before. Few of us made it there.

We were in our descent into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport when the plane suddenly changed course and headed back up. I couldn't see anything when I looked out the window, but one of the stewardesses in the jump seat right behind me said something must be really wrong. We landed in the middle of an ice storm in North Carolina. 

Flying into D.C. the next morning, there was near-silence on the plane. In the clear sunlight off to the side as we approached was the hulk of the Air Florida flight that had crashed while we were in our descent. 

Everyone showed up in a foul mood. Harold Ickes took me aside to tell me that the Kennedy people had reached a deal the night before with the Mondale people about the maximum number of superdelegates and I should call off the attack.

I looked at him as if he were crazy and said, "Do you really expect me to call off Maxine?" He did. I couldn't. But the name stuck.

When I read last week that the Clinton campaign had begun their outreach to superdelegates, I had to laugh.

She has already lined up virtually every Democratic officeholder in the country. Bernie Sanders has exactly zero support in Congress. Joe Biden, who might be expected to do better, will find that almost everyone he calls is already committed to Clinton.

While a few defections here and there might get press for the vice president, at the end of the day, Clinton will start this campaign not only with more money and more organizers and more endorsements than anyone else but also more delegates to provide a buffer against any early state defeats. Superdelegates, indeed.

And while there are more women in the group today than in the 1980s, it's a bit ironic that the first primary Clinton is likely to win is the only one that is still dominated by establishment men.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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