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There at the Creation: Defending Superdelegates

The dilemma before the Democratic Party concerning the role and function of “superdelegates” is something that I’ve studied and thought about both as a political scientist and as a political activist. At Northwestern University, I wrote my master’s thesis on legislative role representation and my doctoral thesis on the Democratic delegate selection process. As a member of the Hunt Commission and Democratic National Committee in 1982, I helped create the class of ex-officio national convention delegates who have come to be referred to as superdelegates. This unusual confluence suggests that I weigh in on the debate within my party with a number of points that may help frame the public discussion.

First, let’s deal with the academic theory. British political philosopher Edmund Burke wrote of the “trustee” theory of representation — the idea that people elect representatives as trustees to exercise independent judgment and do what is best. The antithesis of this view on representation is that of the “delegate” — i.e., that representatives are selected only to implement the expressed will of the voters.

Another representation role, an American contribution to political theory, is that of the “politico” — someone who acts as a trustee on some classes of issues and as a delegate on others, someone who believes that both instruction from constituents and independent judgment should be part of his or her decision-making.

As someone who helped create ex-officio delegates, I can speak to legislative intent. Parties review their rules quadrennially to ensure that they serve their best interests and that they address the current political environment.

We had two distinct concerns when we created these automatic delegates, both related to electability. First, we wanted to make sure that the party had a mechanism to prevent us from “walking off a cliff.” Ex-officio delegates would give the party the necessary “wiggle room” to prevent a disaster should new information about a candidate come out well into the process.

Second, we felt that it was critical that the party and elected officials who would carry our electoral campaign in the fall be represented at and be part of the convention that nominates our candidate for president, to strengthen the party’s overall campaign effort. (We had observed in other conventions, most specifically 1972, that when party and elected officials are excluded from the process, the general election effort is distinctly weakened). Frankly, irrespective of the candidate one supports in 2008, it is hard to challenge the validity of both of these rationales for ex-officio delegates.

So, is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) right in defense of superdelegates? I think she’s certainly correct that this class of delegates should exist. I think she’s also right that these delegates are substantively different from pledged delegates because they represent critical offices and constituencies within the party. Given the nature of their jobs and experience, she’s right in defending their roles as Burkean “trustees.”

But what is problematic are the criteria that superdelegates should use in making their determination, casting their convention votes and ensuring that the presidential nominating process is perceived to be fair and legitimate.

Trustees should exercise judgment to do “the right thing.” But for whom? Is it the right thing empirically, i.e., who runs the strongest race against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? Is it the right thing in evaluating hypotheticals, i.e., potential unexposed problems for a newer face, a non-fully vetted candidate who might look like the strongest candidate now but possibly not in the fall? Is it the right thing in your “gut” about who would be the best president and strongest commander in chief? Is it the right thing for party unity? Is it the right thing for your constituents, who may have clearly expressed their point of view in a primary or caucus? Or is it the right thing for party candidates running for state and other offices if one national candidate is viewed as a potential “downballot” drag? The “right thing” is not so simple after all. If it were simple we wouldn’t be having this debate.

Given the special circumstances of presidential elections described above, I strongly believe that ex- officio delegates should be trustees and use their judgment to do “the right thing.” But unless one can prove that a candidate with the most aggregate votes and/or the most pledged delegates (contrary to the current conventional wisdom, not necessarily the same person) is unqualified to be president or unelectable in the fall against McCain, and in the absence of new and problematic information about one of the candidates, it becomes difficult to justify ex-officio delegates disregarding a popular mandate. Can they do it under the rules? Yes. Should they do it? Only if they can provide very specific and objective criteria for their decision that can be legitimately defended and unify the party. The burden of proof rests with them as individuals, not as a class.

Ex-officio delegates were designed to strengthen the party by bringing their broad experience and the constituencies they represent directly into the presidential nominating process. Ex-officios were created to unite the party and make it more likely that it would win from top to bottom in the fall. They were not created to overrule a clear national mandate and/or an indisputable lead in pledged delegates but rather to supplement these factors, to strengthen them and to make the nominee even more likely to win. Nothing about their responsibilities is casual, whimsical or undemocratic.

Whether they are Members of Congress, governors or state party chairs, this may be the most important decision of their political careers, and they are very serious about doing the right thing. That is their function. And that is what they ultimately will do.

Mark A. Siegel is a partner at Locke Lord Strategies. He was executive director of the Democratic National Committee, an elected at-large member of the DNC for a decade and served on three national Democratic delegate-selection commissions.

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