The Democrats, Wrestling To Negotiate An Endgame

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Now what?

Barack Obama, as expected, won the Mississippi Democratic primary yesterday, his second straight victory in four days, his 29th overall, another tiny notch in his delegate lead over rival Hillary Clinton. But Mississippi clarified nothing. That's because the Democratic presidential race is in a byzantine state beyond clarification.

To make it plain: The Democrats are stuck in their own mud. They have no scripted ending to this titanic battle, no scenario ready for wide embrace. Or any embrace. Or even a handshake. On one level, the historic competition between Obama and Clinton has energized the party, boosted primary turnouts, spawned legions of new voters and campaign volunteers. But on the let's-get-real level, Democrats have problems even a blind man can see. Their primaries and caucuses have revealed labor splits, racial and ethnic splits, gender splits, age and class splits, and a rivalry that is getting nastier by the day.

"It's a train wreck," says John Edgell, a Democratic operative not involved in either campaign. "Either way, you're going to tick off half the base."

The judges waiting in the wings are 796 party insiders unaffectionately known as superdelegates. "There's no way that superdelegates will not decide it," says Edgell, who has been meticulously tracking superdelegate endorsements and compiling them on a spreadsheet. As of yesterday, his count was 269 for Clinton, 220 for Obama. [Overall, Obama leads Clinton in total delegates, 1,585 to 1,473, according to the Associated Press.]

We are now in the strange season of Democratic pretense -- pretend that everything will work out smoothly even though you suspect that everything won't. "The Democratic Party is going to have gum on its shoes that it can't get off," says Edgell, a former veteran congressional staffer. "There are going to be bruises that will last through November."

Clearly, it is also the season of rampant, mixed-use metaphor. If ever there was a moment to summon the analogies of struggle, dilemma, tactical warfare and careful negotiation, that moment is now. So it might be prudent to step back from politics and look for clues to a Democratic resolution elsewhere: in chess, magic, poker, mathematics, gang intervention, sports handicapping, Middle East peace negotiation, marriage. The list is endless.

As realms go, it's hard to beat boxing. Obama had the champ on the ropes after the first round in Iowa but couldn't finish her off in New Hampshire. Bloodied, Clinton fought back gamely and gained some momentum heading into Super Tuesday. Both candidates landed solid blows there. But then Obama pummeled the champ for 11 straight rounds, and it looked like she was just hanging on, ripe for a knockout. But just as the scribes were filing their stories of the champ's demise, she waged another comeback, winning three of four rounds on March 4. (Needless to say, this is a loooong fight). All of a sudden, the questions were: Does the challenger have a glass jaw? Does the champ have enough time to overcome the challenger's lead on points?

"This has got a heavyweight-fight tension," says Angelo Dundee, the great trainer of such world champions as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. "The one with the toughest defense will win it," he predicts. "The other guy gets worn out. That's what Muhammad did against George Foreman in Zaire."

Campaigning in Ohio and Texas, Clinton became much more aggressive, relentlessly pressuring Obama. "Great fighters are able to change gears," says Dundee, "and that's been the history of boxing, being able to switch tempos." But he cautions -- and this would apply to Clinton's so-called kitchen-sink strategy: It's not how many punches you throw. "A guy can throw a thousand punches, but only half of them are effective."

To Obama, Dundee would say: "You fight your fight; you don't fight their fight."

"This situation is very interesting," he says. "Only in America, right?"

While boxing is often brutal, chess is always cerebral. And we're in the phase of the campaign where strategic advantage is paramount. You get crafty, you try clever. Maybe you float the idea of making your opponent your running mate, even though he is the one ahead.

"Chess looks like a static sport, but it has a lot of ebbs and flows, just like a political campaign," says Bill Hall, executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation, the governing body of chess in the United States.

When you make a move on the board and it causes your opponent to retreat or divert his plan in order to respond to you, that is called gaining a tempo. Which Clinton did on March 4. But Obama has a "material advantage" (more pledged delegates), Hall says, which is like "having a better pawn structure" in chess. He also has a "space advantage," meaning he started out with a lead in Iowa and has kept it and the primary clock is winding down, leaving Clinton with few options.

"So she is getting squeezed out by his space advantage, and the only thing she can do is be fully in counterattack mode and regain the initiative in a big way and go for checkmate," says Hall. "In other words, she is on the edge of kind of a desperate situation. And when you get in a desperate situation, you're almost to the point of having an all-out attack because there are no draws in political campaigns."

But there are negotiations.

Dennis Ross is an adviser to Obama about Israel. For 12 years, he was the top Mideast peace negotiator, during the presidencies of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Drawing on that experience, he says, "If I was looking at this from the standpoint of a mediation, you start with: What do the two sides have in common?" He answers that (1) neither Clinton nor Obama wants to tear the party apart, and (2) neither of them wants to lose a key Democratic constituency that will be needed to win in the fall.

That said, both Clinton and Obama are determined to win, and neither wants to accept defeat. Thus, any mediation will be difficult, as each side is likely to focus on where the candidate has a competitive advantage. Clinton would argue that she has won the big states and is better prepared to stand up to a fierce battle against the Republican machinery in the fall. Obama would argue that he has broadened the Democratic coalition, won more states, leads in pledged delegates and offers a better contrast to Republican nominee John McCain.

Ross says it is probably better to build a mediation around the superdelegates, who are even more vested -- and clear-eyed -- than the candidates about ensuring party unity and expanding their voting base for a fall victory. A core group of superdelegates and party leaders -- he mentioned former vice president Al Gore, former senator John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- could come to the candidates and try to establish ground rules of decorum for the remaining contests. There would have to be a lot of advance work before any visible meeting, Ross says, because once there is a visible meeting an outcome is expected by the public. And if none is produced, that only reinforces the idea of chaos and intractability.

In the interest of keeping peace among the Democratic factions, this core group of party leaders could propose in private, for instance, criteria for arriving at a nominee, some measure that would be broadly viewed as fair. But that, of course, doesn't deal with the prickly issue of what to do about Florida and Michigan. "That's a tough one," Ross says.

Time to turn this forum back over to the party insiders.

Former House Democratic whip David Bonior of Michigan, who managed John Edwards's campaign, says there is no doubt that do-over elections have to be held in Florida and Michigan "even though they played outside of the rules." Those states are too important to the party's chances in the fall to "dis them," as he put it, and risk a depressed turnout. His suggestion, which has picked up steam within the Democratic hierarchy, is to have mail-in ballots.

"The reality is this is going to go all the way to the convention," he says of the presidential competition. And the sooner Michigan and Florida get figured out, the better. "It will only get more divisive as we go on in the next four months."

As for how the race should be decided and who should be the nominee, Bonior continues to maintain his neutrality. But he did offer this: If Obama holds his lead in pledged delegates and popular vote and doesn't emerge as the party's standard bearer, "then I see that as a problem. A big problem, by the way."

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