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Bernie Sanders’ Superdelegate Chutzpah

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in N.H. last month. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call)
Sanders probably would have to ‘flip’ a substantial number of superdelegates to win the nomination. (Meredith Dake-O’Connor/CQ Roll Call)

Bernie Sanders and his legions are furious about the possibility that superdelegates could help Hillary Clinton win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. There’s a word for that: chutzpah.

For several decades, Sanders chose to set himself apart from the Democratic Party. He held himself up as a paragon of non-partisan virtue and has charged that leading members of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, are essentially corrupt, inept or both.

Columnists-Bug-Web-ALLEN Now that the Democratic Party’s nomination rules favor his rival, Clinton, the #Bern crowd is angrily denouncing the way Democrats select their nominee. The vast majority of the 4,700-plus delegates to the Democratic convention are pledged to support the choice of primary and caucus voters in their state or district. But there’s a set of 714 “superdelegates”— elected Democrats, party officials and party elders — who vote for the candidate of their own choice at the convention. In at least one case, a Clinton-backing superdelegate has reported receiving harassing messages from Sanders supporters.

While Sanders and his official campaign have been careful to walk a fine line on the question of superdelegates — after all, his very narrow path to the nomination would likely require him to flip a substantial number of them to get a majority of the overall delegate pool — his allies are attacking the system. And he’s done nothing to contradict them.

They’ve taken to to petition for a variety of fixes that would essentially undo the concept of the superdelegate system, and their sentiments are a constant refrain on social media and in news stories.

“This process is undemocratic and fundamentally unfair to Democratic primary voters,” reads one of the more popular petitions, which has nearly 178,000 electronic signatures, according to the MoveOn Website’s count.

That may be. And someone should make the case that the Democratic Party’s nominating process should be retooled.

But Bernie Sanders isn’t that someone.

If he cared about the Democratic Party, its rules, its members or its voters, he could have joined the party before it became politically convenient for him to do so. He is a Democrat for one reason and one reason only: His pursuit of the presidency.

Instead of working to reform the party during his 40-plus years as a candidate and officeholder, he’s cast stones from the outside, ripping Democrats and sometimes running against them in quixotic bids that threatened to result in the election of Republicans.

When Patrick Leahy sought to become the first Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Vermont in 1974, Sanders jumped into the race and nearly siphoned off enough votes from Leahy to elect his Republican opponent. A dozen years later, he ran against the sitting Democratic governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kuhnin. It wouldn’t matter, Sanders told the New York Times, whether Kuhnin or a Republican, aided by his candidacy, won the governor’s office.

“It is absolutely fair to say you are dealing with Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” he said.

Obama, in Sanders’s book, is a disappointment who hasn’t been as good for black people as a President Sanders would be. He took to the House floor to accuse Bill Clinton of “buying votes” for NAFTA and has accused Hillary Clinton, in the most thinly veiled terms, of selling her policy positions to the highest bidder.

Leaving aside for the moment that many of them think Sanders would get crushed in a general election and could act as an anchor on the fortunes of down-ballot Democrats, is it any wonder that the vast majority of superdelegates are reluctant to hand the keys to the party to someone who declined to be a member until he determined joining was his only route to the presidency?

Sanders isn’t the only one who doesn’t like the superdelegate process. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a superdelegate who has been supportive of Clinton without making an endorsement, says it’s bunk.

“I’m not a believer in the sway of superdelegates deciding who is going to be the nominee,” she told reporters last week.

Now, Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in the history of American government, a lifelong Democrat who spent years building the party structure both as a member of Congress and as a private citizen, has standing to tell fellow Democrats that their system stinks.

Again, Bernie Sanders does not.

Clinton will probably beat Sanders by every relevant metric when all is said and done, rendering the concern about superdelegates’ power moot — at least for this election cycle.

But what of the future? I think party elites, in both the Democratic and Republican parties, should have a role in the nominating process. They often know the candidates, and their track records, much better than voters who are barraged with a week’s worth of 30- and 60-second ads every four years.

The elites, who have expertise in political matters and a longtime vested interest in the party’s health and success, are a bulwark against nominating bad candidates. I suspect there are quite a few Republicans who, right about now, wish that a significant share of the delegates to the GOP convention were superdelegates.

There’s another interesting facet to the pursuit of superdelegates on the Democratic side: A candidate’s success or failure in wooing them may be a measure of that candidate’s ability to build political and policy coalitions if he or she is elected to the presidency. With a system that is broken, the ability to persuade — and, yes, cut deals with — members of the political class is a strength that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Ultimately, there are any number of ways to re-write party nominating rules. But that process should be undertaken by people who care about the party in years in which they aren’t personally running for president.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is head of community and content for Sidewire and a co-author of the New York Times-bestselling book “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.” He and co-author Amie Parnes are working on a follow-up book about the 2016 election. Follow him on Twitter at @JonAllenDC


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