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For 2020, Hill’s Democrats Won’t Be So Super

Activists pushing to neutralize nominating say-so of members of Congress and other party insiders

Delegates appear on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in 2016. There’s growing momentum among Democrats to eliminate the formalized role of superdelegates in deciding the national ticket. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Delegates appear on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in 2016. There’s growing momentum among Democrats to eliminate the formalized role of superdelegates in deciding the national ticket. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Does it make sense to tell the folks responsible for bringing the tribe back to the Promised Land that they’re losing some of their clout to help keep it there?

That’s one way of phrasing the question the Democratic National Committee has started to answer in recent days.

The topic is the so-called superdelegates to the presidential nominating conventions, who include every one of the party’s members of Congress. And momentum is growing strong to effectively eliminate their formalized role in deciding the national ticket.

The party’s grand plan for restoration of control over the policymaking branches of the federal government begins, of course, with the midterm elections. Taking back the House and maybe the Senate, too, is the best possible jump start to taking back the White House two years from now — along with an expected surge in the roster of Democratic governors, another category of superdelegate, from 16 to as many as 22.

All the Democrats who win in November will have empirical proof they understand what it takes to be electable — if not nationwide, then at least among their own constituents. They’ll have as good a claim as anyone to understanding where the country wants to be headed as the next decade arrives. And for the next two years, they’ll be among the most prominent manifestations of what it means to be a member of the Democratic Party in the time of President Donald Trump.

If the keys to all or even half the Capitol is the reward, of course, it will be thanks to a solid clutch of incoming lawmakers who figured out how to transform their red swatches of the country into blue.

The argument is strong that politicians who have proven they can expand the electoral map are the very sorts of people who should be given a seat at the table — although not dispositive power, to be sure — when a political party is making a decision that comes up for review just once in four years. And so it has been for the Democrats for the previous nine presidential nominating cycles, since 1984.

But that seems destined to change. Over loud protests from some veteran members of Congress, last weekend the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee pressed forward with a plan that would prevent superdelegates from casting meaningful votes on the first presidential nominating ballot at the convention in the summer of 2020.

Instead, their votes would count only if the outcome was already decided by the pledged delegates — similar to the way the Democrats, when they last ran the House a decade ago, permitted the delegates from U.S. territories to cast votes on the floor only if their positions did not alter the result.

Under the new system, which could still get altered in the coming weeks, the party insiders would have a formal hand in finding a solution only if there’s a first ballot deadlock. But such a prospect seems theoretical at best; brokered conventions get predicted all the time, but the Democratic gathering of 1952 was the last to require more than a single ballot.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez has been pushing the idea as a compromise, because plenty of liberal activists, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont most passionately among them, have called for neutralizing the superdelegates altogether. (The next most prominent lawmaker on that side is, somewhat paradoxically, the 2016 nominee for vice president, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.)

A guiding hand

After a liberal juggernaut in the primaries in 1972 nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who suffered a historic wipeout, and then primary voters stuck with President Jimmy Carter in 1980 over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, resulting in another landslide loss that fall, the Democrats decided it was time to permit the political professionals to apply a check on the system.

The solution — cooked up by a group including Rep. David E. Price, then a political science professor and party boss back home in North Carolina — was to create a category of “superdelegates,” something of a misnomer because their only superpower is that they’re not formally pledged to any candidate at the convention.

Awarded that status are a couple dozen distinguished party elders (including former nominees and former top Hill leaders), current governors, members of the Democratic National Committee (always the largest bloc, at more than 400), and all current members of Congress (the second-largest group, and the one that fluctuates the most depending on recent election results).

The notion is to give these people, the closest the party has to old-fashioned bosses and the people best versed in the politics of the moment, some voting strength to go along with their persuasive powers to try to brake or derail the nomination of a candidate who enthralls the base but would be unelectable in the fall.

The Republican Party has no similar fail-safe. The only delegates not chosen through primaries and caucuses are a trio of GOP officials from each state, and starting in 2016 they were bound to support the victor of their local primary or caucus. As a result, there would have been no way for Republican National Committee members and state party chairmen to form a wedge that could have denied Donald Trump nomination on the first ballot, a scenario many party leaders entertained until his popularity grew to insurmountable levels.

Republican members of Congress nonetheless have floor privileges that permit them unfettered button-holing time at the convention, but their absence of a formal role means plenty stay away completely or drop by only long enough to press some parochial flesh, complete some fundraising chores and bond with their Hill buddies a bit in the special congressional cloakrooms secreted away in the arena. This is quite different from Democratic conventions, where senators and House members tend to make a full, high-intensity week out of the proceedings.

Thumb on the scale?

The Democratic superdelegate system has never sat well with the base on the left, which says it smacks of elitism and system-rigging and that their party’s core principles should start with a purely “lowercase D” democratic way of settling on a nominee.

The issue came to a head in 2016, when Sanders fingered the superdelegates as one way the party establishment had rigged the nomination system against him and for Hillary Clinton.

Watch: Sanders Delegates Boo Clinton at Rally

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The allegation was true only to a limited degree, mainly because the superdelegates had just 15 percent of the votes on the convention floor in Philadelphia. To be sure, better than nine out of 10 of them backed Clinton, and without them she was short of the absolute majority of delegates needed to take the nomination.

But if there were no superdelegates, that absolute majority figure would have been different. She still would have won with 55 percent of the pledged delegates, the same share exactly as her 55 percent of the popular vote in the nominating contests.

Of course, their name recognition, political organization, fundraising prowess and electoral salesmanship skills give many super delegates powers stronger than their votes — at least in their communities and sometimes nationwide.

Democratic senators broke for Clinton by 45 to two and House members by 177 to seven. But it was not nearly so much their votes as their voices — especially waves of endorsements months before the primaries began — that created and sustained the sometimes halting momentum for Clinton two years ago.

And similar such influence would not change whether they have a vote on the convention floor or not.

One of the bellwether moments in the 2008 campaign, after all, was when Rep. John Lewis, who’s better known nationally as a civil rights movement icon than as Atlanta’s congressman for three decades, withdrew his endorsement of Clinton and threw his support to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, an event that helped sap the Clinton campaign of its sense of inevitability and turbocharged enthusiasm for Obama among thousands of African-American voters and a significant number of other black political leaders around the country.

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