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Howard Dean Faces Tough Choices

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The pressure is rising on Howard Dean. Neither Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Sen. Barack Obama is expected to muster the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination by the time primary voting is completed in June. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, it falls to Dean to mediate the contest.

The looming standoff is already testing party rules and loyalties, and any misstep by Dean will become an issue itself in the election, threatening to weaken Democrats in November.

Both campaign are laying the groundwork for approaches that would put them on top. But Dean, too, is considering his options. He could call for do-overs in Florida and Michigan, where early primaries led the party to strip the states of their delegates at this summer’s national convention. He could insist that superdelegates hold off on any further endorsements until the primary voting is complete. He could even call Clinton and Obama together for a weekend retreat at his Vermont home — and tell one of them to step aside.

“The only thing you do right now is think,” said Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman. “I think any attempt to intervene at this time would be ill-advised.”

Fowler, who has endorsed Clinton, said there was still “an opportunity, a possibility,” that the remaining primaries and caucuses could produce a winner. But if neither Clinton nor Obama has the delegate math in their favor by the first week of June, Dean would have to deal with what he called “the real big bears in the woods,” Florida and Michigan.

The two states were stripped of their delegates when they defied the DNC and held early primaries. The candidates did not campaign in those states and Clinton won both races, although Obama’s name did not appear on the Michigan ballot.

The Clinton campaign plans to ask its delegates from other states to seat the disputed delegations, and underscores how important a unified Democratic Party is in those two states, which are often critical in presidential contests. “We believe the people of Florida and Michigan have voted and their preferences ought to be honored,” Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, told reporters this week.

But David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, accused the Clinton campaign of trying to rewrite the rules to suit its interests. “I don’t think there is a lot of appetite for that out in the country,” Plouffe told reporters “I don’t think there is a lot of appetite for that at the DNC.”

Gary Hart, a Democratic candidate for president in 1984 and 1988, agreed that Dean should be working hard to resolve the dispute. “He needs to be exploring options – hourly,” Hart said. Hart proposed that Dean move quickly to appoint an ad hoc group of party elders to study the situation and report back to him in three or four weeks about possible ways to resolve it.

Dean is also under growing pressure to weigh in on superdelegates…Their 20 percent of the total delegate tally makes them powerbrokers in the presidential primary contest.

DNC rules allow a new process to be put in place, and some have suggested scheduling new votes in those states, or counting a fraction of the delegates, based either on the tally of the January votes there, or the performance of the candidates nationwide. But many in the party fear that a protracted debate that centers on how to count votes cast in Florida would conjure up memories of the troubled 2000 presidential contest.

“I think every Democrat should pray we will get a nomination out of the primaries and caucuses and we won’t have to settle Michigan and Florida in a contested circumstance,” Fowler said.

Dean is also under growing pressure to weigh in on superdelegates, the 796 elected officials – governors, senators, and House members — and party leaders who are also given votes in the nomination process. Their 20 percent of the total delegate tally makes them powerbrokers in the presidential primary contest.

Hart blames his 1984 loss to Walter Mondale to superdelegates. “They made the difference,” he said.

Hart acknowledged that superdelegates play an important role in the party. “They carry the water for the donkey on a day-to-day basis.” But he complained that a majority of superdelegates endorsed Mondale early in the 1984 contest and “felt morally obliged to honor their commitments,” even though Hart won a string of late primaries and polls taken just before the convention showed him as the stronger candidate against Ronald Reagan.

“Superdelegates are supposed to represent experience and wisdom and justice,” Hart said. “They didn’t do that in my view in ’84.”

Hart is supporting Obama, and it is easy to see shades of his own experience in Obama’s recent momentum. Hart said Dean should be calling superdelegates across the country, “urging them to wait until we see what the primaries result in.”

Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000 and a superdelegate, last week threatened to quit the Democratic Party if superdelegates decide this year’s nominee. But Brazile – who has remained neutral in the race – tried to clarify those remarks on Wednesday, agreeing with Hart that they should not rush to endorse one candidate or the other. “The last thing superdelegates should be doing is panicking in the face of this historic opportunity the party has,” Brazile said.

And, if the rest of the voters have their say and there still isn’t a winner? “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Brazile said.

Fowler, another superdelegate, said he and the others in that position should be trusted to decide the nomination, should it come to that. “To think that this group would thwart the will of the people is just ludicrous,” Fowler said. “Since there are no philosopher kings around here that I know about, or queens, this is the best group of people to do it. Many of them have put their whole lives into the party.”

Both campaigns are engaged in a high-stakes game of Risk, using maps and calculators to plot their efforts and gain any advantage they can in the pledged delegate count. But, while it remains mathematically possible to squeeze out a win that way, they are also waging an intense battle for superdelegates, boasting with press releases when they lure another to their side. The Clinton campaign argues that they should back the candidate that stands the best chance to win the general election.

Dean raised eyebrows in early February when he mentioned another possible way to resolve the standoff. He said that if a nominee was not selected by the end of the primary schedule in June, the party would try to work out some kind of deal between the Clinton and Obama camps. "I don’t think we can afford to have a brokered convention," Dean told NY1.

Stacie Paxton, a DNC spokesperson, insisted this week that Dean would only take that step as a last resort. “There are still more than 1,000 delegates at stake and we expect it will be resolved before the convention.”

Paxton said Dean speaks frequently to both campaigns, but refused to describe those conversations.

But the mere mention of anything approaching a backroom deal was quickly rejected by insiders and analysts. “It would be a catastrophe,” said Don Fowler. “I just don’t think the American people would tolerate that.”

Gary Hart agreed. “I think you would need some kind of cataclysm for it to go back to bald-headed guys smoking cigars in back rooms.”

Robert Dallek, a historian and author whose books include "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," said such deals were possible in an earlier era. “It was accepted practice that the party bosses were going to be the ones who decided,” said Dallek.

There is one other possibility that Dean could consider – encouraging superdelegates to stay out of the nomination race, as many did in 1980…

Dallek, a member of Historians for Obama, said the two Democratic candidates should focus not on attacking each other, but on demonstrating who would be a more effective candidate against John McCain, the likely Republican nominee. “If they beat up on each other, it’s going to hurt Democrats’ chances,” Dallek said. “What Dean is doing is talking to both camps about not doing things that will undermine the party in November.”

There is one other possibility that Dean could consider – encouraging superdelegates to stay out of the nomination race, as many did in 1980, when Jimmy Carter became the party’s nominee despite a last-minute attempt by Ted Kennedy to win over some of his delegates.

Hart said superdelegates usually enjoy the chance to attend political conventions, but may be less interested this year, if they have a difficult choice to make. “A lot of politicians like to run away from controversy,” Hart said.

Unfortunately for Dean, he doesn’t have that option.

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