The not-so-su­per del­e­gates

Ripon Bulletin - - Opinion - SU­SAN ES­TRICH Po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor

Iwas a ju­nior “rules junkie,” as we called our­selves, when I coined the term “su­perdel­e­gates” in 1982. Then-Sen. Ted Kennedy was run­ning against Wal­ter Mon­dale then. Not then, of course, but in the Hunt Com­mis­sion, or the Rules Com­mis­sion, the lines were clearly drawn. The Mon­dale peo­ple were push­ing to make party lead­ers and elected of­fi­cials au­to­matic, un­com­mit­ted del­e­gates for the next con­ven­tion. They called them “PLEOs.” I called them “su­perdel­e­gates” in the Washington Post and “white boys” in the sin­gle ho­tel room that fit all the fem­i­nists.

It was the per­fect ar­gu­ment, the Kennedy side agreed, and be­sides, I be­lieved in it. We had barely achieved a rule that del­e­gates would be equally di­vided be­tween men and women, and now we were mak­ing them sec­ond-class del­e­gates? We all got it: There was a lot of animosity in those days to­ward “cau­cuses” like ours, and every­one was sud­denly re­liv­ing the 1972 con­ven­tion, which or­ga­nized la­bor de­serted. Like Su­per Tues­day (a colos­sal early fail­ure for the mod­er­a­tors, who ended up hand­ing Jesse Jack­son a plat­form), the PLEOs were sup­posed to help the more mod­er­ate can­di­date in a sys­tem that un­ques­tion­ably fa­vors the more lib­eral.

And then dis­as­ter struck. Lit­er­ally.

As my flight — and a lot of oth­ers —was ap­proach­ing Washington Na­tional Air­port in the snow, an Air Florida pas­sen­ger flight lit­er­ally crashed be­neath us.

The next morn­ing, we boarded a flight from Raleigh-Durham In­ter­na­tional Air­port to Washington, D.C., for the de­layed, piv­otal meet­ing of the Rules Com­mis­sion chaired by then-North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. I ended up sit­ting next to him on the plane. He’d heard that “they” might be mak­ing a deal on the PLEOs. I was a ju­nior rules junkie, but I was the only girl on the field, and Max­ine Waters, who may have been in the state as­sem­bly at the time, was one of the only women at the ta­ble. Her flight had also been de­toured. The guys pulled us aside. A deal had been cut. Not so many as they wanted, not so few as we did.

Waters wasn’t budg­ing. There re­ally was a fem­i­nist women’s cau­cus in those days. We were al­ready think­ing about get­ting a woman on the ticket for 1984. We were se­ri­ous about not want­ing to give power away. And we were sup­posed to be meet­ing in Waters’ room. Geri Fer­raro, the se­nior woman in Congress at the time, squeezed in (it was just a room, two beds, not ex­actly a power suite), and we all lis­tened po­litely and nodded sup­port­ively and pro­ceeded to do ev­ery­thing we could to de­feat the cre­ation of su­perdel­e­gates.

The rea­son our ar­gu­ment was so pop­u­lar was be­cause it avoided the trick­ier prob­lem: that pri­maries and cau­cuses are not ex­actly open sys­tems, which once meant po­lit­i­cal ma­chines and town com­mit­tees con­trolled things, and now means that ide­o­log­i­cal ac­tivists who go to meet­ings on cold Mon­day nights do, the main­stream be damned. So of course Bernie San­ders sup­port­ers don’t want su­perdel­e­gates, equally di­vided or not, be­cause they would have tipped the bal­ance to Hil­lary Clin­ton — if she needed the tip­ping.

If it’s be­tween Sen. San­ders and former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den this time around, just for in­stance, I think I can be pretty cer­tain that the PLEOs would vote Bi­den.

Now, tell me, would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

It usu­ally takes a good two or three bad de­feats for peo­ple to even be­gin to think about vot­ing strate­gi­cally in pri­maries and cau­cuses. That’s only the last hope of the des­per­ate, like lib­er­als who de­cided to go with Bill Clin­ton early be­cause he was a south­ern mod­er­ate as well as a friend of ev­ery po­lit­i­cal junkie of his gen­er­a­tion. Other­wise, bet left or right; bet off the charts. Don’t bet the ma­chine. What fun is that?

I think some­thing im­por­tant is gained when a can­di­date gets tested up close, es­pe­cially in this era where so much else about pol­i­tics is so art­fully in­au­then­tic. Can you do farm fam­i­lies in Iowa or not? Do you do cof­fee shops? No one did Dunkin’ Donuts bet­ter than Clin­ton, and that mat­ters. And pri­maries and cau­cuses do build some­thing — if not par­ties, then peo­ple who care about pol­i­tics. I fell in love with pol­i­tics driv­ing a pool van (as in press pool, al­though the kids fol­low­ing me thought I was driv­ing to a pool) in a los­ing cam­paign.

But there’s one thing that is still more im­por­tant than all of that. Win­ning. And whether ty­ing the hands of su­perdel­e­gates will make every­one else that much more en­thu­si­as­tic and strate­gic re­mains to be seen.

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