Every time I see a tally of the delegate race that excludes so called “superdelegates,” I have to laugh. “Of course they count,” I want to scream at The New York Times, which otherwise offers a flawless tally. That’s precisely why I, and a minority of others, fought so hard against the introduction of superdelegates. Now I’ve been fortunate to live long enough to finally see them do what they are supposed to: Keep the party from driving off a cliff. And yet, no one wants to count them. What did we do wrong?
Let’s start with the numbers. Those are clear. The Democrats have a nominee. With more than half the delegates already selected, Hillary Clinton is leading Bernie Sanders by more than 700 delegates — 1,712 to 1,004. For him to close the gap, he basically has to wipe her out everywhere, which isn’t happening.
“But wait,” you say. “You’ve included the superdelegates in your tally. They haven’t all picked their candidate.” For the record, nearly 600 of the approximately 700 automatic delegates — automatic because they are elected officials or members of the Democratic National Committee (which, by the way, makes these rules) — have already declared their preferences. And that’s not even mentioning the imbalance among pledged delegates. The insiders are for Clinton, by a vote of 469 to 29.
Wipeout. Just what is supposed to happen. Lest those pesky Democratic grass-roots activists and loser-lover types be inclined to drive the party over a left ward hanging cliff, the establishment is supposed to step in to ensure that we nominate the electable candidate.
This is precisely why I was against superdelegates. It’s why I (thank you to the late Bill Safire for figuring this out) was actually the one to coin the term “superdelegates,” a term meant to oppose the creation of just such a powerful voting bloc of white men. Or that’s what I said in The Washington Post, as I recall. It was also true, I can say in retrospect, that I took that position because I was inclined to leftward-hanging cliffs and figured the so-called “superdelegates” would be putting the brakes on my candidates.
How time changes things. The superdelegates were slow to move in 2008, notwithstanding Clinton’s establishment roots, because Barack Obama’s surprisingly broad appeal left Democrats who need to win for a living moving cautiously, so as not to get ahead of their constituents. For fear of offending one group or another, they stayed neutral, at least until their states voted.
This time, the superdelegates moved early and gave Clinton a huge margin of error. In the end, she won’t need it, but the end looks both closer and more inevitable when you do the numbers to include the 467-26 margin among unpledged delegates.
It’s ironic, to say the least, to watch Republicans, whose system was supposed to allow a winning candidate to consolidate his gain with big winner-take-all primaries, now struggling to put the brakes on a runaway train, and with no big blocs of delegates to do it.
And the Democrats? I’m afraid to say it, but we grew up. I remember what it was like to be on the trail in 1980 for Ted Kennedy, when we didn’t have a chance of the nomination. We had those same kinds of pesky numbers, but we were fighting for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time in politics in my life — except that we lost. And then Democrats lost in the general election. And the next one. And the next one.
And by the time Bill Clinton came around — who happened to be part of what I fondly termed the “little white boys caucus,” which supported superdelegates — Democrats had lost enough to understand that the purpose of the nomination process was to pick a candidate who might win, rather than define the heart and soul of the party. That is why we have superdelegates, and why they most assuredly do count.