25 April 2008

How Should Superdelegates Vote?

There's been a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party's "superdelegates" should vote. Superdelegates are party bigwigs, rather than low-level functionaries chosen in primaries and caucuses, as the not-so-super delegates are.

It rarely matters how they vote, because the primaries and caucuses have, since they developed, always selected the candidate. But this time, with the race between Obama and Clinton so tight, it is possible that the superdelegates could make the difference.

Many folks are now saying they should vote for (a) whichever candidate has the most delegates, because that's obviously who the public really wants, or (b) whichever candidate has received the majority of the popular vote, because that's obviously who the public really wants. (Because of (a) the caucuses that some states hold, and (b) the different ways the states dole out the delegates, some in winner-take-all, some proportionally, and some by district, or a mix of these, having the most delegates may not coincide with having a majority of the popular vote. To all that confused mess I can only say, God bless American federalism.)

Both of these claims assume that the public ought to be the determining factor in selecting the party's candidate.

But that's a lot of nonsense. First of all, the superdelegates are individuals, and so they ought to vote their own conscience. Second, they have a better idea of the party's interests, and their conscience ought to lead each of them to vote for the candidate they think is best for the party.

In the bad old days, it actually was party leaders who selected presidential nominees, and while it was very undemocratic, it had two related advantages:

  1. It resulted in more cohesive and responsible political parties;
  2. It resulted in presidents who were constrained by those parties, rather than our current situation where presidents feel they are solely responsible to the public, and believe that gives them leeway to be nearly autonomous executives--after all, if the public is sovereign, anyone acting in their name is merely exercising sovereign power and ought not be constrained in any way.

The creation of the primary system, which shifted presidents' allegiance from their party to the public (Woodrow Wilson's "small c constitution" approach to the presidency) has been one of the primary causes of our run-away imperial presidency.

I wouldn't be willing to bet it will happen, but the best outcome would be for the superdelegates to determine the Democratic nominee, and for them to act as a group in extracting pledges for restraint as a condition of throwing their support to one or the other.


James K said...

I think there's a lot to be said for the "smoke-filled room" approach to candidate selection.

New Zealand parties use this type of system, though it's a bit hard to tell as the primaries for candidates are not given public exposure and the method used is entirely up to the party. My understanding though is that for most parties a small committee from the central party has as much say as the party members in each electorate.

James Hanley said...

That's sooooo undemocratic.

And, I think, so much better.

James K said...

The other this is that because we have a mixed-member proportional system, half our MPs come from a party list so they are set entirely by the central party. Add tot he fact that our party leaders are elected by the parliamentary caucus and you have a much less democratic system.

I think the net effect is that our politicians are less parochial (so we don't have earmarks) and less vulnerable to lobbyists. On the other hand we are driven more by the personality of the Prime Minister, I think the fact the we haven't had tax cuts in 9 years is due to the temperament of the PM.