How Things Sort of Work

Kids don’t do politics, but in the new raw suburbs just north of Pittsburgh in the fifties, neither did their parents. The parents were Republicans. Everyone’s parents were Republicans, by default. Eisenhower was president and he seemed to be a fine fellow. Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare and his awful hearing had been an embarrassment, but those were over and McCarthy, a serious alcoholic, was dead – and that was far away and concerned other people anyway. That merited no more than a shrug. The town had its mayor, and we must have had a congressman, and two senators in Washington, but no one paid attention to them. Democrats ran the city, a few miles south over the hills, but they were more Irish than political – and most of the city cops seemed to be Irish. There the Democrats had a political machine that got the right things done for the right people efficiently enough, just like in Boston. That was expected. No one gave it a second thought. No one gave politics a second thought. Any kid who said he wanted to grow up to be a politician might find his father suggesting running off to join the circus might be a better career choice.

That changed in 1960 – Jack Kennedy was something new. Norman Mailer was out here in Los Angeles covering the Democratic National Convention and wrote about that in his 1960 essay Superman Comes to the Supermarket – a long and still rather amazing bit of Hunter Thompson before there was Hunter Thompson, and David Masciotra covers Mailer’s key points:

Mailer writes that Kennedy had a “good and sound liberal record,” but the real reason to treat his political emergence with excitement is that he “has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.”

“Since the First World War,” Mailer explains with the eye of the philosopher and poet pulled into the visionary glance of one literary artist, “Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics, which is concrete, factual, practical, and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.”

Because Kennedy, with his Hollywood looks, his sexual vitality, his charisma, and his high level wit, offered illustration and assertion of the underground, second America life, he had the potential to become an “existential hero,” and America, according to Mailer, is a nation that needs heroes. The stiff and stale 1950s opened up the antiseptic space for Dwight Eisenhower to act as hero, but he was a hero for that large number of Americans who, in the words of Mailer, “were most proud of their lack of imagination.”

Okay, now you don’t have to read the whole thing, but you probably should, for the amazing detail well observed – Mailer didn’t think much of Los Angeles – and for this passage about the delegates to that convention:

Delegates are not the noblest sons and daughters of the Republic; a man of taste, arrived from Mars, would take one look at a convention floor and leave forever, convinced he had seen one of the drearier squats of Hell… A delegate is a man who picks a candidate for the largest office in the land, a President who must live with problems whose borders are in ethics, metaphysics, and now ontology; the delegate is prepared for this office of selection by emptying wastebaskets, toting garbage, and saying yes at the right time for twenty years in the small political machine of some small or large town; his reward, one of them anyway, is that he arrives at an invitation to the convention. An expert on local catch-as-catch-can, a small-time, often mediocre practitioner of small-town political judo, he comes to the big city with nine-tenths of his mind made up, he will follow the orders of the boss who brought him.

Yet of course it is not altogether so mean as that: his opinion is listened to – the boss will consider what he has to say as one interesting factor among five hundred, and what is most important to the delegate, he has the illusion of partial freedom. He can, unless he is severely honest with himself – and if he is, why sweat out the low levels of a political machine? – he can have the illusion that he has helped to chooses the candidate, he can even worry most sincerely about his choice, flirt with defection from the boss, work out his own small political gains by the road of loyalty or the way of hard bargain. But even if he is there for more than the ride, his vote a certainty in the mind of the political boss, able to be thrown here or switched there as the boss decides, still in some peculiar sense he is reality to the boss, the delegate is the great American public, the bar he owns or the law practice, the piece of the union he represents, or the real-estate office, is a part of the political landscape which the boss uses as his own image of how the votes will go, and if the people will like the candidate.

That’s how things used to work. Jack Kennedy might have changed everything, suddenly making politics a life of romantic high adventure, but underneath it all were the dull functionaries, folks who were considered monumentally uninteresting even in their home towns – and they somehow gave America Jack Kennedy. No one quite knew how that happened.

Those days are gone, but Slate’s Jim Newell reports that Pennsylvania hasn’t changed much:

The most important figures in the Republican presidential primary right now are not New York voters. They’re also not the wave of delegates who, in state after state, have made it clear that they’ll support Sen. Ted Cruz if they become unbound on later ballots at July’s Republican National Convention. The most important figures right now are the delegates who will be unbound on the first ballot of the convention and will effectively hold veto power over whether Donald Trump is the party’s nominee.

And there will be 54 of these delegates from Pennsylvania alone, making the Keystone State’s delegation some of the most critical individuals at the convention. Given the tightness of the presidential race, Pennsylvania’s quirky Republican primary system affords the state’s delegates the most nominating leverage they’ve had in 40 years.

That’s because of the system there:

Republican voters on April 26 will choose a presidential candidate to first determine the winner of the 17 bound, statewide delegates. But the 54 delegates allocated by congressional district will be voted on separately – without any candidate preference listed next to delegate candidates’ names. This means the district delegate winners will be true wild cards – not bound to the candidate preferences of the men and women in their state or districts—and the targets of serious persuasion efforts from the campaigns of Trump, Cruz, and John Kasich through the first ballot vote in Cleveland.

The good news for Trump is that he’s comfortably leading in Pennsylvania, and many of the delegate candidates are saying they’ll vote in Cleveland according to their districts’ wishes. In a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review survey of the 162 delegate candidates on the ballot (to which 127 have responded), 67 have said that they’ll vote on the first ballot for whoever wins their districts. If Trump trounces his competition in the state, he’ll likely win the lion’s share of its 18 congressional districts and the support of many of these unbound delegates promising to obey the will of the voters.

The bad news for Trump, however, is that many of those delegate candidates who’ve pledged to support the winner of their districts may not hold to that position under the spotlight of a national convention – whether they honestly believe they will now or not.

This is a bit of a mess, but this is how voters go about choosing delegates with no candidate affiliation next to their names, according to John Schnaedter, executive director of the Allegheny County Republican Party:

In districts like the 12th, which has 15 candidates for three slots, it’s mostly about ballot placement and name recognition within Republican political circles. “I think Dave Majernik has a really good shot … because he’s the vice chair of the [Allegheny County Republican Party] and also he’s [listed] second [on the ballot],” Schnaedter said. Two candidates, Bob Howard and Jill Cooper, he added, are lower on the ballot (13th in Howard’s case and third in Cooper’s) but have similarly good chances because of name recognition alone.

“If I were to bet,” he said, “I would guarantee that two of those three make it, if not three of those three.” Of the three candidates Schnaedter says has the best shot of representing the 12th, he believes all of them are supporting Cruz. “They’re probably not admitting it, but I know they are,” he said. Howard, Cooper, and Majernik have all pledged to support the winner of their districts on the first ballot.

Other districts are far less competitive. The 14th District, for example, has only three candidates for its three delegate positions. It’s not surprising, then, that each of the candidates’ public position is “uncommitted,” since these candidates don’t need to make any tiresome pledges to voters to respect their wishes in order to get elected.

“I’m talking to lots of folks. I’m listening. I certainly will weigh what the voters do in my district. I’ll certainly look to what the voters do statewide,” said Mike DeVanney, a Republican strategist in Pittsburgh and one of the 14th District’s three candidates (e.g. one of the eventual delegates). “But I also recognize, as someone who’s independently elected, that I have a responsibility for my vote at the convention to help nominate a candidate who can ultimately win in November, and also someone who I think can articulate a Republican message and grow our party.”

Trump may win the Pennsylvania Republican primary in a landslide – all the polls say he will – but once again, local catch-as-catch-can, small-time, often mediocre practitioners of small-town political judo, as Mailer puts it, will determine the fate of the nation, as DeVanney knows well:

“Looking up and down the list of delegate candidates, and I have done that,” he said, “I don’t see a lot of support for Donald Trump among the people who are running.” And come July, those 54 men and women could make all the difference between a first-ballot Trump nomination and an open convention.

Masciotra knows what that means:

Donald Trump, in the eyes of many voters ranging from uninformed to mentally disturbed, appears like an existential hero. Should he pull off the increasingly unlikely nightmare of becoming President, he would multiply and intensify his already repugnant and destructive cultural movement. It is a movement that empowers many of the bigots who were once shamed into silence by decades of social and political progress. Trump as President would notify every antisocial and anti-intellectual American that their time to speak ignorantly, act cruelly, and threaten the civility and decency of American diversity has arrived. The hate and violence at his rallies offer a horrific preview into the cultural transformation that might occur if Trump were to become the country’s character and cultural leader.

Ted Cruz would likely arrest America’s development and cause it to regress into the immaturity of the Bush years. Extremists with dreams of theocracy in their heads would feel emboldened to further push their agenda of corrupting American schools, stunting American sexuality, and damaging American women onto a nation steadily becoming less religious.

The prose is purple but the observations are accurate enough. The dull functionaries, folks considered monumentally uninteresting even in their own home towns, will have to save the day again.

That’s a hell of a way to save the day, and on the other side, Greg Sargent sees the same thing:

Over the weekend, Bernie Sanders emphatically declared that there’s still plenty of time to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning a majority of delegates, and hinted that if so, he might move to extract concessions from her at a contested convention. That actually could happen, since Sanders has the money to keep on going until the last votes are cast.

If so, here’s one way this could end: Sanders could demand concessions in the form of reforms to the Democratic nominating process. That’s something voting reformers (and a lot of Sanders supporters) would be very grateful to see happen – and it would make sense, given that one of the big stories of the Sanders challenge is that it has exposed a number of flaws with that process.

The Sanders campaign has been hinting that he will move to peel away un-pledged delegates – so-called super delegates, who are not bound to a candidate by the voting in primaries and caucuses – from Clinton, even if he’s trailing in the battle for pledged delegates (who are bound).

But that might be tricky:

Going back to the advent of super-delegates in 1984, they have never sided with the candidate who trailed in pledged delegates, and Clinton is all but certain to be leading in the pledged delegate count when it’s all over, even if she doesn’t have an outright majority of all the delegates (pledged and un-pledged together) at that point.

But even so, if Sanders can keep Clinton short of a majority of delegates going into the convention, he could still try to use whatever leverage he has – after all, he’ll have the support of voters across the country that Clinton wants in her corner – to prod the Democratic Party to make changes to the way it selects its nominees.

So there are some ways to change things:

It’s possible that the party could discuss doing away with super-delegates, or at least scaling down the number of them. There are currently over 700 super-delegates in a process that requires 2,383 overall delegates to win. It’s more likely that the party would discuss limiting them rather than eliminating them, given that the Donald Trump challenge has got elites talking anew about the perils to a party of not having any at all.

It’s also possible that the party could discuss doing away with closed primaries. Clinton is heading into a stretch of closed primaries – which only permit voting by registered Democrats – and she’s very likely to win big in New York in part because of overly restrictive voting rules that make it harder for unaffiliated voters to register as Democrats.

“Independents are the fastest growing political affiliation, but they are often shut out of the nominating process,” Ari Berman, the author of “Give Us the Ballot,” a history of the struggle over voting in America, tells me. “Many younger voters have less of a party affiliation. We should look at how the process is shutting out these voters.” Such a reform would help the Democratic Party stand for engaging these voter groups.

And there’s also putting limits on the number of primaries that can be held on one day:

Clinton won big on days (such as March 1st and March 15th) that held many contests at once; that automatically favors the candidate with more national name recognition and establishment support, because an insurgent struggles to catch up in many states at once.

“Having a bunch of states go all on one day creates an unnatural advantage for wealthy and high-name-ID candidates, and disadvantages insurgents,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says. “The contests should be more spread out. It should be the principle of the Democratic Party that we’re not advantaging privilege.”

Sargent also goes on to call for a “more rational, transparent process for setting debate schedules” – the arguments about those were stupid – but he really would like to see an end to caucuses – they’re just too closed.

All of this would of course save the Democrats from the kind of chaos the Republicans seem to be facing at their upcoming convention, where the vote of that real estate agent with the office at the corner of Perry Highway and Center Avenue saves the nation from Donald Trump, or doesn’t – and Josh Marshall reinforces much of this:

Caucuses always have extremely low turnout relative to primaries because they make it much more difficult to participate. In real elections we have a phrase for this: voter suppression. Caucuses are really the most effective voter suppression tool in politics today. That usually gets interpreted down to ‘they give a big advantage to the more organized campaign with more committed supporters.’ That’s true. But again, that’s the flip side of saying it’s a process that is too time-consuming and byzantine for the vast majority of people to participate. Caucuses are a cool civic exercise, a sort of Schoolhouse Rock performance art. But they shouldn’t substitute for real elections. All states should have primaries; caucuses should be abolished.

And then there are those super delegates:

The origins of super delegates are complicated. Depending on your interpretation of the history they are either there to stymie insurgent and/or unelectable candidates or prevent a factional candidate with a bare plurality (either of votes or delegates) from winning the nomination. Regardless, we’ve now gone almost half a century enshrining a system based on the premise that each parties’ nominee is chosen through a series of state by state elections. The fact that it’s a party, not the government and the party can make the rules it wants is beside the point. The system is now based on the well-grounded public belief that it is a fair election process. You vote and your vote counts. In that context, almost a thousand delegates who are delegates automatically are simply impossible to justify. Indeed, everyone has seemed to realize over recent cycles that the whole super delegate artifact is a time bomb waiting to go off and in fact could never be used to overrule the candidate who clearly got the most votes or most delegates. Indeed, they’ve never gone against the winner of the public process: they virtually all got behind Barack Obama as it became clear that he was the winner of the public process and indeed almost certainly the stronger general election candidate.

And then there are those dark delegates:

This is the potential disjuncture between the delegates a candidate wins in the public process and how many and what delegates they get at the convention itself. We’ve seen this play out in both parties this year. In many cases, the primary or caucus doesn’t actually elect delegates. It elects delegates to a subsequent state convention. The outcome of that state convention can diverge substantially from the public election result on election night. Sometimes that’s because party regulars have different ideas about where the delegates should go. Other times it’s because more of one candidate’s state delegates show up than the other. In this latter case, the process recapitulates the problem with caucuses. It’s true that if delegates to a state convention don’t show up they have only themselves to blame if their candidate doesn’t get all their delegates. But that’s cold comfort if you’re a voter or caucus-goer who voted and then had someone else blow it and throw away your vote.

The darkest version of dark delegates is the gambit Ted Cruz seems to be pursuing now, which is fill slots of “Trump delegates” with people who actually support Ted Cruz or are at least anti-Trump. This likely wouldn’t have any effect on the first ballot. But after the first ballot (or with some states, 2nd or 3rd ballot) they can show their true colors and vote Cruz. Again, the process (and this may be more the case on the GOP side) is out of line with the valid public perception of how the process is supposed to work.

All this could be fixed, but not without irony:

Here’s the problem: the biggest beneficiary of all three of these ‘problems’ is actually Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ wins have been concentrated overwhelmingly in caucus states. Sanders has also done a better job in the dark delegate hunt. He seems to have picked up or is in the process of picking up more delegates in Nevada, even though he ‘lost’. And he seems to be in the process of doing the same thing in Missouri.

But what about super delegates? It’s with super delegates at least that Clinton is gaining an unfair advantage, right?

Well, not exactly. Clinton still does have overwhelming support among super delegates. But they don’t even count as long as she secures a majority of pledged delegates. And she has a clear lead with pledged delegates. So even though super delegates support Clinton, her current lead does not depend on them at all.

But here’s the thing: People may disagree about whether Sanders still has a realistic chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. What he almost certainly doesn’t have a chance of doing is winning a majority of pledged delegates. The current plan, explicitly stated repeatedly by Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, is to either to prevent Clinton from winning a majority of pledged delegates or actually win a plurality of pledged delegates and then make the case to super delegates that Sanders should be the nominee. The argument isn’t crazy: it would simply be that he’s a stronger candidate and that he had more momentum, was getting stronger as the primary process went on. (Indeed, that would definitely be true if Sanders were able to catch up in this way, in the way I just described.)

In any case, the relevant point is that Sanders current strategy explicit rests on winning the nomination by convincing the majority of super delegates to back him.

Marshal admits that Sanders is simply playing by the rules as they exist, as he should – there’s nothing wrong in what he’s doing – but this is one screwed up system. But it’s always been screwed up. But at least, in 1960, that screwed up system gave us someone new and amazing – Jack Kennedy – and then, in 2008, that screwed up system gave us Barack Obama. That won’t happen this this time. That may never happen again. Forget that “long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz” – the system won’t allow it. We are most proud of our lack of imagination. We’ll get the president we deserve.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to How Things Sort of Work

  1. Rick says:

    Okay, I give up. Donald Trump is right.

    No, not right about everything. In fact, hardly anything.

    I’m just saying he’s right when he claims that our presidential nomination process is stupid and makes no sense. The picking of presidents and vice presidents should be both simpler and more (small-“d”) democratic, from the get-go.

    The way it works now is, you’re a candidate who enters his name in his party’s caucus in such-and-such state, and you win most the delegates, all local muckymucks who, it turns out, don’t happen to like you one bit. But no matter, since they’re only delegates to the state convention anyway, and once there, can either join any coalition that their county leadership randomly assigns them, or else the one that picked up their tab for breakfast — but it’s that group that selects the real delegates, the ones that go to the national convention and are bound to a candidate only on the first ballot, but after which are free to cast a vote for their brother-in-law.

    And if you’re lucky enough to make it to the general election, you could actually have most the people vote for you, but still lose the election in the electoral college. Foreigners never seem to understand that, and of course, neither do we.

    Many years ago, I read a book about presidential elections in America (it was published by Congressional Quarterly Press; I wish I could remember the book’s title) that differentiated throughout between the “selectorate” — that is, those voters who select the nominee by voting in primaries and such — and the “electorate” — those who vote in the general election.

    What I propose is that maybe we scrap the whole “selectoral” process and cut straight to the “electoral” process. No primaries, no caucuses, no delegates, no state conventions. No parties, no states involved. Cut out all the middlemen. Boom! All gone!

    Just the general election. And that should be run by the federal government, not the states. And having everybody vote all on one day obviates the problem of having otherwise good candidates drop out too early because they failed to impress the ethanol industry or most the voters of some all-white New England state. Let’s face it; we’ve always known that this sequential state-by-state primary business distorts the process of choosing our leaders, and America should never have allowed it to start.

    And while we’re at it, no electoral college. Just let American citizens vote directly for their presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

    The most common argument against allowing the popular vote to choose our president and vice president is that it’s somehow “unfair” to the smaller states, but why should states be choosing the leadership anyway, instead of the people? The famous phrase is not that a certain candidate is “the states’ choice”, it’s that he’s the “people’s choice”! In fact, elections aren’t supposed to be contests that pit large states against small states, it’s people who believe a certain way against other people who don’t.

    The states already get to pick the members of Congress and the Senate, and for too long, through “electors” chosen by the states, they’ve been picking the president and vice president as well. When and if the electors and the people ever happen to pick the same candidate, it’s only by happy accident. In other cases, it’s considered a flaw in the system. Why not just skip all the silly stuff and let the people pick their own leaders?

    And then there’s the political parties. When you think about it, the role of all these “private” — that is, non-governmental — political organizations is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, so why do we allow them so large a role in our country’s governance?

    As for that question of “Who can get on the ballot?”, the short answer is, “Anyone!” Still, there would have to be some sort of qualifying barrier — maybe a certain high number of signatures on a petition. Maybe candidates could, if they so choose, designate on the ballot which political party they would caucus with, just so voters can get a general idea of their ideology.

    And one positive by-product of taking the election process out of the hands of parties might well be cutting down on all the partisan gridlock that has taken over Washington.

    But also, to avoid the problem we had in the election of 1800 — back when the Constitution said the candidate for president with the second-highest number of votes would be named vice president, forgetting to specify what should happen in case of a tie — candidates should run as a “ticket” that includes the president and vice president.

    So what happens if nobody gets a majority? Then we could do what states do to whittle down the field to the top two: Have a runoff election. Another possibility is an “instant runoff” system, in which voters not only pick their first choice but their second choice, and maybe third choice; then we compute the winner from these. (To see how that works, click on that link.)

    Yeah, there are real problems trying to get the country to do things the way they should have been done from the beginning, but this runaway four-year presidential season business has finally gotten out of hand. It’s about time it were stopped.

    We keep calling ourselves a democracy; just for fun, why not actually become one?


    • Excellent post, and reply, as usual, but…
      Recently I saw a quote that makes sense, here. It was attributed to Frederick Douglass, former American slave and civil rights leader about 150 years ago or so. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
      So, choose whatever kind of power that you wish. The one(s) that have it aren’t going to give it up (the small states, maybe?). The ones who scheme and connive to get it?
      The solution, I think, has to be in the definition of power in our society: one person, one vote.
      What is sad to see are the people who don’t and won’t vote, period, or if they do vote, vote without information. Or the ones who whip themselves into a frenzy about the lesser of the evils candidate who will almost certainly end up being the nominee, and then won’t vote for her with the obvious consequence of empowering people far, far worse, simply by being absent from the polls on election day, or between nomination and election.
      There really don’t need to be any changes in the rules of the game.
      Those who want to make a difference simply have to show up.

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