Democrats are increasingly nervous about their party’s protracted nomination fight, and some prominent figures are publicly warning that the party needs to act fast to avoid disaster.
Chief among these voices is Phil Bredesen, the two-term governor of Tennessee who is uncommitted to either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
In an interview this week with Politico, Bredesen said flatly that if the contentious slog continues until the Democrats’ late-August convention in Denver, the party would have a vastly diminished chance of recapturing the White House.
“They have a much steeper, rockier hill to climb if it goes to the convention,” the governor said over a dinner of rockfish and red wine. “You’re going to spend this whole summer — and lots of money and time and effort — trying to convince people that whoever isn’t eventually nominated, isn’t electable.
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"That’s a heck of a hole to climb out of come the first of September,” he added. “What’s been going on for the last 90 days just gets worse and worse as the summer goes on.”
Bredesen also joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in warning that superdelegates should not overturn the outcome from primaries and caucuses.
If Obama were denied the nomination by Democratic insiders after winning the party’s popular vote, Bredesen said, “There would be hell to pay in the party for a long time to come.”
Bredesen is doing something about his concerns. He was in Washington this week to promote his idea for holding a “superdelegate primary” in June, in which the 795 party bigwigs would gather to hear one last time from Clinton and Obama before casting a final vote.
Rather than allow the horse-trading and bloodletting go on all summer, he’d get it over with during a two-day business meeting in a neutral, easily reached city like Dallas.
“Invite the candidates to come and talk if they want, and then literally call the roll,” he explained. “We should not go through the summer and have a divided and exhausted Democratic Party. The inescapable conclusion is: OK, you’ve got to find some way to bookend and bring it to closure earlier. How do you do that? Do it in June rather than August."
The governor said he decided to push the plan because of what he called a “sea change” in opinion among Democratic elites. What once appeared to be a once-in-a-generation blessing — having two strong candidates with significant appeal among Democrats — seems more like a burden now, as the race drags on toward April and May contests that are unlikely to offer any more clarity than the muddled results of the past three months.
“Ninety days ago, everybody was talking in warm terms about both the candidates: ‘Isn’t it wonderful? Whoever’s president is going to be great,’” the governor said. “It has gotten vastly more polarized now, and that really concerns me.”
To Bredesen, an even-keeled political pragmatist, superdelegates are certain to ultimately decide the nominee, so it makes no sense for them to do it later rather than sooner.
“The bottom line here is that we have a problem, and I think we need to take it off autopilot and try to find some way of resolving it,” he said. “I don’t know any way that is not going to generate some hard feeling and some divisions in the party. But if we do it early, we’ve got a chance to patch them up.”
Practicing his sales pitch, Bredesen added: “I think it’s an opportunity to show the public that we’re a modern party and when confronted with a problem, we don’t just have toglide along and hope for some seismic event to solve it all for us.”
The governor said he has spoken to Clinton about his plan, which he unveiled last week in an op-ed in The New York Times, and that she did not reject it out of hand. He said he had traded messages with Obama.
Bredesen gave a technocrat’s answer to why he made the proposal, calling himself “a problem solver" and saying it’s “common sense.” He came to Washington to meet with Democrats about the idea and has lobbied several fellow well-regarded Democratic governors — including Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas — about it over the phone.
The notion has found more favor among party activists outside Washington, he said, suggesting that Beltway Democrats and particularly Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean were not moving quick enough to recognize a growing problem.
“He certainly was not warm to it,” Bredesen said. “He was afraid that such a convocation … would present negative publicity for the party: the graybeards gathering in a back room to do it — smoke-filled room, all this kind of stuff. My retort to that is: You’re going to have that anyway. The superdelegates are going to decide the thing. Better to happen in June.”
Then the governor jabbed: “Howard Dean’s not the whole party. They call it a committee for a reason.”
Bredesen said superdelegates should be independent agents and noted his own case to underscore the point that superdelegates should not necessarily be guided only by who has the lead in total delegates (Obama’s case) or who has won more big states (Clinton’s argument).
“In my case, Obama has a majority nationally and Hillary Clinton won Tennessee,” he said. “So who’s the majority for me?”
The governor did, though, say that if the winner of both the popular vote and leader in pledged delegates was denied the nomination it could prove disastrous for the party’s chances.
“This is really divisive," he said. “If Obama were to have a clear majority of the popular vote and the superdelegates for some reason turned it around the other way, I think there would be hell to pay in the party for a long time to come. You’ve got to try to come out of this with some sense of fairness about it, to have any chance of putting the party together.
“If Obama has more delegates and has a clear majority of the popular vote and the superdelegates come together and pick Clinton, I think it’s a problem that going to take some time to work out,” he continued. "There’s going to be a lot of hard feelings.”
Bredesen, who was reelected with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2006, is prevented by term limits from running again in two years. He said his effort to broker a solution to his party’s nomination fracas isn’t connected to making a play for vice president.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “A couple of years ago, I gave some thought to, do you want to try to be a player in that stuff — Southern governor and all that kind of stuff. What I really decided is: If you do that, you’re going to get nothing done in your second term as governor.”
Bloggers, liberal-leaning journalists and Democratic strategists have all warned in recent days that their party, yet again, risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
“How Obama vs. Clinton Is Killing The Democrats” is the subheadline on the cover of the latest edition of The New Republic, just below “We Have To Choose One” and an arresting composite image of the two Democrats.
“All of which is to say that it’s about time for the Democratic Party to panic,” the eitors write at the end of an editorial titled “Bush’s Last Laugh.”
“If it wants to win this election, it needs this race to end as soon as possible. Every day spent on the primaries represents an opportunity cost and diminishes the chances for ultimate victory.”