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Opening the Box.

The news yesterday and today about a number of Democratic superdelegates moving toward Barack Obama or, even if ardent Clinton supporters like Joe Andrews of Indiana, admitting they would hesitate to be responsible for the superdelegates overruling the pledged delegates, reaffirms a point I've been making for weeks: All this talk about what the superdelegates "ought" to do is a distraction, part of the "fog of nonsense," to use Josh Marshall's phrase, that is keeping the illusion of a Clinton candidacy alive. The relevant question was always what they will do, and there was never a reason to think that they had any pressing desire to overturn the will of the pledged delegates.

As to the "ought" question, even though the historical record shows that superdelegates were created as a way to prevent nominees who would be abjectly unelectable (not that either George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, or Walter Mondale was thought to be unelectable at the moment of the convention), they were given free will and what they ought to do is, whatever they want. If a superdelegate decides to follow the national pledged delegates, the national popular vote, the popular vote in his or her district, some assessment about electability, or his or her own deep preference about who would make a better president, all those are legitimate reasons. And chances are that various superdelegates will make their choices on any and all of those reasons. As a result, the movement of the superdelegates as a bloc in the direction of Clinton was always unlikely; the qualms expressed by even strong Clinton supporters like Andrews make it impossible.

The Clinton campaign now kind of reminds me of the physics metaphor of Schroedinger's Cat. If you recall, this is a thought-experiment that is supposed to help explain transitional sub-atomic states: imagine a cat in a closed box with a vial of poisonous gas and a geiger counter. If an atomic particle decays, the gas is released and the cat dies; if not, the cat lives. Until you open the box, you have a cat that is maybe dead/maybe not.

I have to admit, I've never really understood this metaphor. It seems like it might be simpler to just explain the physics. There's a box with a cat in it and the cat is either dead or alive. So what? It's not both dead and alive. And that seems to be the state of the Clinton campaign now. As long as they can keep spinning -- e.g. Bill Clinton's new line that it's the delegates elected in primaries that count, not caucuses -- they can keep the box closed. The campaign is both dead and alive. But eventually someone will open the box. I suspect it will happen sooner than we think.

[cross-posted at TAPPED]

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Communitarian

(Cross-posted from TAPPED.)

My first reaction to reading the text of Obama's speech on race and Rev. Wright was that it was too long and defensive. And echoing in my ears was still the insistence of a colleague on the subway this morning that "white people don't want to hear a long lecture about the complexities of race. They want to feel good about themselves." (In other words, they want to "purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.")

But it was a very good speech, in part because it was delivered in such a relatively flat and straightforward way, and because just when you thought he would dodge a point (even having read the text), he stepped up and dealt with it. I've really appreciated that each Obama speech has become slightly more mundane, workmanlike, and thus presidential, because you can't build a long campaign and a presidency on incandescent moments.

Like Ed Kilgore, I'm continually fascinated not by the content of Obama's religious experience but by how he got there. Most politicians talk about religion from the perspective of having been raised in families that are somewhat more observant than they are as adults, so they are elevating religion from their childhood and their parents or grandparents. Others, like George W. Bush, found in religion a private salvation. Obama's experience is unlike either one, and frankly unlike anyone's I know: His work as an organizer led him to the church, the church was the heart of the community in which he was working, he became religious because of his commitment to social change. It was neither personal, nor familial, but part of his forming an identity, but not just as an individual, as a member of a community. And thus, race, his public life, and religion are intertwined in a way that they are not for most people, even people whose social values and work originates in their faith.

Kilgore comments that this "won't make a lot of sense to those Americans who view church membership as an expression of consumer choice, and ultimately, of the spiritual discrimination and good taste of the religious consumer." Indeed, this was the viewpoint of my colleague this morning -- if you don't agree with what you hear in a church, go to another church. But Obama's analogy to family answered that about as well as could be answered -- the church wasn't serving just a personal function for him, it was situating him in a community in which he had chosen to live and work -- and work on behalf of.

I'm mystified when people talk about Obama as if he were pure ego, as if he believes that the "Barack Obama brand" itself delivers change. He is in fact the most deeply communitarian politician (in the sense of Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor's point that our identities cannot exist outside of our of social interactions and networks) I have ever seen. His identity -- as African-American, as Christian -- is chosen and it is chosen because it situated him within a community.

For Sandel and others, "communitarianism" was a critique within liberalism to the overly "atomistic" and legalistic view of identity of rights-oriented liberalism and particularly John Rawls. There was an attempt in the 1990s to build a kind of political movement around the idea, and Bill Clinton adopted some of the language, but it didn't really go very far, partly because, as Paul Starr writes in Freedom's Power, "it has at best been a supplement or corrective to tendencies within liberalism." But in Obama that supplement or corrective can be quite substantive, as I thought was shown in Alec McGillis's comparison of Obama and Edwards in their approaches to poverty -- for Edwards poverty is about not having enough money, and the solutions are economic, including helping people move to where jobs are, where Obama was attracted to comprehensive efforts to rebuild community, including the non-economic aspects of life.

In today's speech, community played a role of lifting the question out of the stale argument about identity politics, and remind us that it's about much more than who's black, who's a woman, who said something that might be considered racist, who has an advantage because of their identity. One's identity is indeed the sum of your experiences and social interactions and where you situate yourself in a community. I thought Obama basically did that for everyone in his speech: himself, Rev. Wright, his own white grandmother, and even Geraldine Ferraro.

I guess I liked the speech a lot more than I thought I was going to on first read.

-- Mark Schmitt

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 19, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why Clinton Doesn't Want a Revote.

(Cross-posted from TAPPED.)

There aren't many windows into a strongly pro-Clinton/anti-Obama view in the blogosphere, making TalkLeft invaluable, where "Big Tent Democrat" (the former Armando of DailyKos) has been focused like a laser on the issue of how to deal with the Michigan and Florida Democratic delegations. The claim made there, and on some of the other pro-Clinton blogs like Taylor Marsh, has been that it is Obama who is blocking re-votes in Michigan and Florida, raising legalisms or obstructing agreement, but that the Clinton campaign should be more aggressive in pushing for revotes. Big Tent Democrat puts it in the context of the argument about the popular vote:

[T]he problem with the Clinton campaign's refusal to fight for revotes in Florida and Michigan [is that] to be perceived as the popular vote winner, Clinton needs revote wins in Florida and Michigan. I do not understand the Clinton campaign strategy at all on Florida and Michigan.

But it's actually easy to understand. What would happen if an agreement were announced today that there would be re-votes in Florida and Michigan? Immediately, the previous primaries in those states would become dead letters. Instead of being 200,000 votes down in the popular vote (by her campaign's count), or 500,000 down (by my count, which gives Clinton her Florida votes), Clinton would be down in the popular vote by almost 1 million. And 193 delegates that they are currently counting would suddenly disappear.

And at that point, the magnitude of Clinton's deficit would be too obvious to spin away. Yes, there would be two additional large-state contests in which to win back the million popular votes and hundreds of delegates. But unless she did significantly better in both states than she did in the illegal primaries, she would lose, not gain, ground, by her own calculations. Since she was on the ballot alone in Michigan before, it's highly unlikely that she will do better there. It's very possible that she could do better than the 50 percent she won in Florida in January, but since it would now be a two-person race, it's a dead certainty that Obama would do significantly better than the 32 percent he got in January, thus adding to his total popular vote margin and delegate count even if he lost again, and so it would be a net loss for Clinton. Re-votes cannot help Clinton be "perceived" as the winner of the popular vote.

Contrary to the gullible media's belief that "time" is a "powerful ally" on Clinton's side, in fact, Clinton's only ally is uncertainty. The minute it becomes clear what will happen with Michigan and Florida -- re-vote them, refuse to seat them, or split them 50-50 or with half-votes, as some have proposed -- is the minute that Clinton's last "path to the nomination" closes. The only way to keep spin alive is to keep uncertainty alive -- maybe there will be a revote, maybe they'll seat the illegal Michigan/Florida delegations, maybe, maybe, maybe. In the fog of uncertainty, Penn can claim that there is a path to the nomination, but under any possible actual resolution of the uncertainty, there is not.

So far, Obama is playing this situation well -- agreeing to abide by any rules the party establishes, but not pushing to embrace any particular solution other than the existing rules. But soon it will make more sense to call the question: Move toward some certain resolution of Michigan and Florida. I think my seat Florida/re-vote Michigan scheme makes sense and now seems a likely outcome, but the specific resolution doesn't matter, because whatever it is, it will introduce certainty and finiteness, and without the comfort of ambiguity, the Clinton spin-campaign cannot survive. The Clinton campaign began -- unwisely -- by spinning inevitability; it ends, equally unwisely, by spinning cosmic uncertainty. In between the two spin campaigns, they apparently forgot to give people enough of a positive reason to actually vote for Senator Clinton.

UPDATE: Commenter weboy [at TAPPED] complained that I should have sought out more pro-Clinton blogs, and recommends a few, so I will link to Tom Watson's recent post, "The Few, the Proud, the Pro-Clinton Bloggers," and to riverdaughter, as well as his own.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 14, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0)