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Superdelegates and the "Responsible Parties" Tradition

Who would imagine that there was more to say on the subject of the Democratic Party's superdelegates? Yet two posts this week on The Democratic Strategist and on PolitickerNJ add some important context to the historical role of superdelegates, and make clear that their role amounts to a lot more than avoiding an unelectable candidate. On the New Jersey site, former Senator Robert Toricelli recalled the Hunt Commission, which devised the superdelegates, drawing on his role in his youth as Walter Mondale's representative to the commission:

The most important [goal] was to get Members of Congress back in the process. First, unless Congressional leaders participated in the process, they would feel no accountability to the platform and no responsibility for the nominee. To choose a candidate without Members of Congress and Governors participating was bad politics and bad government.

Ed Kilgore puts it similarly:

As I recall from the original discussions surrounding superdelegates, there was another, much simpler rationale: ensuring that major Democratic elected officials would get to attend the convention as delegates. One of the byproducts of the earlier reforms in the nominating process had been to significantly limit elected official participation, except for those who happened to run for delegate positions on successful candidate tickets. And this in turn reinforced a fear that the Democratic Party was increasingly becoming bifurcated into a national party dominated by constituency groups and issue advocates, and state and local parties (and their elected officials) who represented voters, and arguably, the Democratic rank-and-file.

The language of "accountability" and "responsibility" is an echo of the language of "responsible parties" -- a political tradition Matt Yglesias and I have been trying to revive. The idea that there were two Democratic Parties -- a congressional party which was somewhat more conservative and Southern, and a presidential party which was more liberal but also somewhat dominated by constituency groups was inherent in James McGregor Burns  theory of four parties, although it took a different form by the 1980s. Even then, though, there were a lot of Democratic members of Congress who didn't have much interest in their presidential candidate, and didn't care much whether the president was a Democrat or not. Democratic House members in particular assumed that they would control the institution forever, while presidents would come and go. The contempt with which Bill Clinton was treated in 1992-93 was related to that attitude.

After the successive shocks of 1994, the complete alignment of the Southern white conservatives into the Republican Party, impeachment, the 2000 election and the Bush years it's pretty hard to recreate that mindset. Now every member of Congress is deeply invested in both who the next candidate is and who the president would be. That would probably be the case even without superdelegates, but bringing together a single, ideologically coherent, responsible party is still a worthy goal. With the elected officials who are superdelegates now split evenly between Obama and Clinton, it seems that there are now two congressional parties, defined not by ideology but by attitude: On one side, older liberals like Ted Kennedy joined with those elected more recently who have the combativeness necessary in the Bush years; on the other side, a middle-generation elected and brought up under the assumptions of the '80s and '90, very roughly speaking.  But the gap they have to bridge is far smaller than between, say, Southern committee chairs in 1972 and candidate McGovern.

Toricelli (excuse his sleaziness for a minute) and Kilgore remind me why I don't think there's anything illegitimate about superdelegates (although the DNC members are a little more dubious), and why they should be free to vote as they please. It is part of the reconstruction of the kind of political party that can take concerted action. The next Democratic president will be able to govern with far greater support from congressional Democrats than Clinton or Carter ever had, and for anything that plays even a small role in making that happen, we should be grateful.

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 4, 2008 | Permalink