By Dana Milbank
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Leave it to the Democrats to make a hash of democracy.
When the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee met at the Marriott in Woodley Park yesterday to decide what to do with the contested primary results in Florida and Michigan, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean kicked off the session by suggesting they avoid a "food fight."
Good luck with that.
"Alice in Wonderland."
"This way lies chaos."
"An arbitrary formula."
"My mama always taught me to play by the rules."
"Let's cancel 2012."
And that was just from the members of the committee. The Floridians and Michiganders were equally unruly ("My state has already suffered enough!"), and the audience became a mob, answering the participants with boos, hisses, cheers and commentary: "Revote! . . . Answer! Answer! . . . Go, Donna! . . . Shut up!"
"I'm reminded," said witness Jim Blanchard, the former governor of Michigan, "of the old Will Rogers adage, which was: 'I belong to no organized party. I'm a Democrat.' "
The committee took its lunch break -- at 3 p.m., 5 1/2 hours after it began morning arguments that were supposed to last just over three hours. The panelists finally returned from their break, and backroom deliberations, at 6:15, as wedding guests were expected to arrive at the Marriott for an evening reception in a nearby ballroom.
The lack of decorum in the hall was barely elevated from that on the sidewalk outside the hotel, where several hundred Hillary Clinton supporters chanted "Count every vote!" and waved signs announcing "Count my vote or count me out." A smaller number of Barack Obama supporters kept their distance. One woman, passing by a 4-year-old girl and her mother carrying pro-Clinton signs, shouted at them: "Cheater!"
The chaos and vitriol seemed to confirm Democrats' fears that they might blow an election that should otherwise be an easy victory for them. Nor did the compromise fit well with the Democrats' oft-voiced commitment to voting rights. They decided they would give Florida and Michigan half of their voting rights -- one of the more arbitrary compromises since the 1787 decision that a slave should count as three-fifths of a person -- and voted to award Obama 59 Michigan delegates, each with half a vote, even though his name wasn't even on the ballot in the state.
Gold-colored ropes (along with some hired DNC muscle) kept the public and the press at a distance from the committee members. "We are strong enough to struggle and disagree and to even be angry and disappointed and still come together at the end of the day and be united," Dean told his troops. But not this day.
Jon Ausman, representing Florida, likened the disenfranchisement of Florida to the election of 1876, in which "the Republicans stole three electoral votes from Florida and made Rutherford [B. Hayes] president instead of Tilden."
Arguing for Obama, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida insisted that his state's delegates should get only half of their votes. This produced a bitter comeback from committee member Harold Ickes, a Clinton adviser, who asked whether Wexler agreed that delegates should be a "fair reflection" of the popular vote.
"Mr. Ickes, you'll have to educate me on what the concept of fair reflection is," Wexler replied, acidly. When another panelist asked what would be wrong with giving Florida its "full vote," a self-impressed Wexler went into a long, table-pounding speech about how "no one in the state of Florida has championed voters' rights more than I."
Representing Michigan, state Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer suggested that Obama get nearly half of the state's delegates -- even though his name wasn't on the ballot. This started the bickering all over again.
"This committee cannot use the results of such a flawed primary to assign delegates," said Obama representative David Bonior to a blend of cheers, boos and hisses.
"Throwing the insult, if you will, at the Michigan primary that it was flawed," committee member Donald Fowler said, "is not appropriate."
Only Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan had an irrefutable point. "We've got a totally irrational system of nominating our president," he said.
Over disruptive cheering, the committee voted 15 to 12 against a proposal to give Florida full voting representation. Clinton supporters in the audience erupted in a chant of "Denver! Denver!" -- a threat to take the fight to the convention in August.
That was followed by a unanimous vote to give Florida half of its voting rights. The audience again erupted in heckling. "Lipstick on a pig!" somebody shouted.
"Please conduct yourselves like proper men and women," committee member Alice Huffman suggested.
Not a chance. The panel went on, by a vote of 19 to 8, to give Michigan half of its votes -- and to give Obama the gift of delegates that the voters of the state had not given him.
Ickes was enraged. "I am stunned that we have the gall and the chutzpah to substitute our judgment for 600,000 voters," he told his peers. "Was the process flawed? You bet your ass that it was flawed. . . . You bet your ass a lot of people didn't vote." Ickes accused the committee of "hijacking" delegates -- "not a good way to start down the path of party unity."
In the anarchic audience, fists pumped and cheers broke out, requiring the committee to call for security to calm the ruckus.