Democrats won’t fracture

Published 1:58 pm Monday, March 24, 2008

The rough treatment Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is giving Sen. Barack Obama may be good, real-world training if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee and gets elected, but in the meantime she’s helping Republican Sen. John McCain.

She may well have cut an actual campaign ad for McCain when she said at a national security event last week, “Sen. McCain has a lifetime of experience. I have a lifetime of experience. And Sen. Obama made one speech in 2002.”

McCain also could reprise Clinton’s “red phone” ad in a campaign against Obama — but then, he could also use the Obama campaign’s lengthy knockdown of Clinton’s claims of extensive foreign-policy experience if she somehow wrests the nomination from him.

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Meanwhile, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro’s, D-N.Y., jibe that Obama would not be a presidential contender if he weren’t a black male — while arguably true — was designed to amplify racial polarization in the Democratic Party and could do so in the general election, as well.

And Hillary and Bill Clinton’s effort to foist the vice presidential nomination onto Obama is designed to diminish his stature, another potential gift to McCain.

There is just about nothing that the Clinton campaign won’t stoop to in order to win — as evidenced by the charge that Obama was acting like special prosecutor Ken Starr for making a perfectly reasonable demand that the Clintons release their tax returns and contributor lists from the Clinton library.

My guess is that, when all is said and done, the Democratic Party won’t hopelessly fracture regardless of who finally gets nominated. If it’s Clinton, she’ll likely be forced to offer the veep spot to Obama to placate African-Americans and young voters.

That, too, may be a gift to McCain because, as many Democrats will tell you in a whisper, having the first black and the first woman on one ticket may be “a sociological stretch” for American voters.

Obama, if he wins, probably will not offer Clinton a spot. He needs a foreign-policy heavyweight at his side — some of his backers are pushing former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. — but he might have to take someone from her camp, maybe Sen. (and former Indiana governor) Evan Bayh.

Many Democrats seem fearful — and the media delighted — that the nomination contest may continue into June and may go all the way to the Denver convention, but as the party’s former executive director, Mark Siegel, reminded me, late finishes are not all that unusual.

In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., had to pick rival Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, at the convention. In 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., won the California primary in June. Only his assassination precluded a convention fight.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter did not clinch the nomination until June. In 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s, D-Mass., challenge to Carter did not end until the convention. And in 1984, Walter Mondale arrived at the convention 32 delegates short and got nominated with the support of superdelegates.

Contested conventions don’t give the public the impression of a unified party — another potential gift to McCain. So it’s conceivable that the party could avoid one with a June “playoff series” in Michigan and Florida.

As all political wonks know, neither Obama nor Clinton can clinch the nomination — if it takes 2,025 delegates to clinch it — with pledged delegates elected through the primary process.

Clinton is 538 delegates away with only 556 delegates yet to be selected in 10 remaining contests. Obama is 411 short, meaning that he’d have to carry 74 percent of the remaining delegates.

Clinton wants to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida and increase the number required for nomination to 2,208, but even if she succeeded, she would not make up what she needs, given the Democrats’ proportional allocation system.

To win, each candidate will need superdelegates. Clinton is ahead in this category, 244 to 207, but 344 are yet to commit — and each side is free to woo those nominally committed.

How will the superdelegates decide? Clinton wants to win them with the “moral” claim that she has won a majority of the Democratic popular vote — even though she is now behind by 702,162 votes — or that she is more electable, even though polls show that Obama does better than she against McCain.

So what’s fair? Redos in Michigan and Florida would help. Clinton “won” Michigan on Jan. 15, but Obama was not on the ballot. And she “won” Florida on Jan. 29, but neither campaigned there and Obama was comparatively unknown.

As a result of party rules, without a redo, nearly 2.8 million voters in those two crucial general election states would be deprived representation at the Democratic convention — another gift to McCain.

The redos could be dubbed “the Final Two.” Or, possibly, “June Madness.”

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)