PHILADELPHIA — After a lengthy debate and a deal between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party's rules committee voted to created a "unity commission" that would dramatically limit the role of convention "superdelegates," binding roughly two-thirds of them to the results of state primaries and caucuses.
"The Commission shall make specific recommendations providing that Members of Congress, Governors, and distinguished party leaders remain unpledged and free to support their nominee of choice," reads the new rules language, "but that remaining unpledged delegates be required to cast their vote at the Convention for candidates in proportion to the vote received for each candidate in their state."
According to the new rules, approved by a vote of 158 to 6, Democrats will appoint a unity commission of 21 members "no later than 60 days" after the general election, chaired by Clinton supporter Jennifer O'Malley Dillon and vice-chaired by Sanders supporter and former Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen. That commission would report by Jan. 1, 2018, and get a vote on its proposals by the next meeting of the Democratic National Committee, long before the 2020 primaries.
The other guidelines for the commission included a mix of Clinton and Sanders ideas, including expanding "eligible voters' ability to participate in the caucuses" in caucus states (a gripe of Clinton's campaign) and encouraging "the involvement in all elections of unaffiliated or new voters who seek to join the Democratic Party through same-day registration and re-registration" (a Sanders demand).
Clinton's campaign, which held a commanding majority on the committee, did not give up very much ground. If the compromise rule changes had been adopted for the 2016 presidential primaries, Clinton would likely have maintained a lead over Sanders, losing superdelegate support in some states but coming out ahead. While Sanders favored the involvement of independents in primaries, the unity guidelines suggest that independents must join the Democratic Party, if only on Election Day.
The superdelegate reforms, too, fell short of what Sanders wanted. Binding superdelegates to the results of primaries would resolve one of his major complaints, that states like Rhode Island and Oklahoma saw superdelegates flock to Clinton even as he won them handily. But it maintained the power of senators, governors and members of the House to endorse whenever they chose, and for their endorsements to be counted in delegate totals — something Sanders blamed for creating the early impression that he could not win.
When the amendment was produced, supporters of Sanders and Clinton took turns praising it. Former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin harked back to the reforms pushed by Democratic nominee George McGovern before the 1972 election. "I have no doubt that our former presidential nominee would be proud of the work we have done today," she said.
That kumbaya sentiment irked some Sanders supporters. Jon Little, an attorney and Indiana delegate for Sanders, voted agaist the compromise on the theory that Clinton, if elected president, had no reason to stick to it. "George McGovern would puke if he saw this," said Little.
Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver and a Clinton supporter, suggested that the compromise should ward off anyone who intended to protest Clinton — or Sanders — from the floor of the convention.
"We need to make sure that nobody does anything when Bernie speaks, and we need to make sure that nobody does anything when Hillary speaks," Webb said. "Yes, we can work together."