The not-so-super delegates
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.