The Super Delegates Super Dilemma

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is turning up the pressure on the publicly unaffiliated superdelegates who have yet to endorse a candidate. On Thursday, Dean told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that superdelegates should start making their decisions public “starting now,” while saying the party couldn’t afford to lose two or three months of reunification time in the face of a potentially bruising campaign against John McCain. The superdelegate dilemma is a true test of Dean’s leadership, but it isn’t the only one.

If the remaining 300-odd, currently-mum superdelegates can’t come to a quick, convincing consensus between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the focus may yet again turn to the unseated delegates from the Michigan and Florida primaries. The results of these “beauty pageant” votes, contests that were stripped of their delegates by the DNC as punishment for their early, unauthorized primaries, would give Clinton momentum and likely put her in striking distance of Obama’s delegate and popular-vote leads.

As the state Democratic parties and local governments in Michigan and Florida have both failed to divine a seating solution, any further action will likely fall into the lap of the DNC Credentials Committee, a 186-member body comprised of various state members selected from primary and caucus results and 25 appointed by Dean himself by virtue of his chairmanship. As a recent report in Politico suggests, Clinton is looking for a “majority report” from the committee to seat the two wayward delegations, but is unlikely to do so without significant support from the so-called “Dean 25.” Politico’s Avi Zenilman goes on to examine each member’s leanings, noting predilections for both Obama and Clinton.

Dean and the DNC clearly dread the prospect of two or three more months like this past week, where the ongoing three-horse race can so easily turn into McCain and one Democrat teaming up against the other. Clinton and McCain were best buds this week while lashing out at Obama’s San Francisco fundraiser comments about those small-towners grasping desperately to their guns and their religion, and the DNC must feel hamstrung in such a painful tug-of-war. Democratic voters and party insiders hope that any fires started now can be put out after the convention, but as anyone who’s lived in wildfire country knows, a little spark can go a long way.

Much criticism was leveled at ABC moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for their gossipy, gaffe-obsessed line of questioning during Wednesday’s Philadelphia debate, but after a year of debates featuring Obama and Clinton, Philly is nothing if not a harbinger of the hair-splitting and name-calling that will ensue between two entrenched campaigns with defined policy positions and prayers of career-killing stumbles from the other camp.

While the prospect of a contested, hard-fought convention in Denver remains perhaps the purest example of American democracy, with all of the good and bad baggage that comes standard with the stars and bars, the long and dusty road through a three-candidate summer lays bear all the muck that has to be raked by politicians, pundits, party insiders and public alike. One thing is clear: superdelegates are as confused and conflicted as the rest of us, and everyone’s waiting for the other to solve ‘08 first.

--Joe Horton

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Sean Cronin