What Ever Happened to the Democrats?

RICHARD REEVES

May 06, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- Super-delegates! Tee-hee! I have an urge to giggle every time I hear that word or see governors and such saying that the leaders of the Democratic Party should step in and choose a substitute candidate for Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention here in July.

The problem with that idea is that there are no leaders, and there is only barely something that can be called the Democratic Party. Soon there will be no conventions, because there is nothing to do at them and television is getting bored with the things.

There is only Bill Clinton, an Arkansas traveler who skillfully took advantage of the nominating rules left by the party after its attempted suicide in 1972.

Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania was only the latest of Democratic officeholders -- ''officeholder'' is not a synonym for ''leader'' -- to go public with his concerns that Governor Clinton cannot win in November. Mr. Casey, by virtue of his high office, will be one of the 770 super-delegates who will be toasted to the sky by Mr. Clinton after he is nominated.

That's sporting of him, perhaps because he feels a little guilty about laughing at these folks for the past few months.

The idea of super-delegates was to re-create the smoke-filled rooms of state chairmen and officials who, legend has it, nominated winning Democrats for president before the waves of reform that hollowed out the party, beginning in 1972. Predictably, the new honchos, Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Lawton Chiles, Ann Richards, non-smokers all, avoided supporting any announced candidates. Most of them fantasized on occasion that the convention might turn their way in the event of a deadlock.

Fantasies they have, super they're called, but to this moment they have had absolutely nothing to do with selecting the party's nominee -- nor will they in New York this summer. The multiple ballots of conventions past have been replaced by multiple primaries, a perfect vehicle for self-selected candidates and for television, too, because the vote-counting all happens in public on one night -- right after prime time in the East. Conventions were sometimes messy affairs, at least for television schedulers.

But now the New Hampshire primary is the first ballot, and the roll calls go on from there until one candidate has enough delegates to win -- then the super-delegates stand up and announce they were for him all along.

The people choose now, but only a tiny minority of them who happen to be in the right place at the right time with the right election laws. The rules of the game are complicated, but they come down to this: A guy with the guts to run in New Hampshire becomes the Democratic candidate and, maybe, president of the United States.

The party's role in all this is to keep the rules safe between elections -- maybe in a vault somewhere in Washington. William Greider, one of the better political writers around, went in search of the keepers of the rules for his new book, ''Who Will Tell the People -- The Breakdown of American Democracy,'' and found that there was nobody home in Democrat land.

The Democratic National Committee, Mr. Greider found, has no records, no names of the people who are supposed to be the party. He concluded that there are only about 100,000 people who could be called ''members'' of the party -- that compares with 2.5 million dues-paying members of the National Rifle Association and 32 million dues-payers in the American Association of Retired People.

His figure, 100,000, is the average number of responses to the national committee's fund-raising mail. The average age of those respondents is 70.

Working from there, Mr. Greider concluded that the true center of the Democratic Party is a few dozen lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, including one former party chairman, Robert Strauss, now President Bush's ambassador to Moscow, and the current chairman, Ron Brown, who lobbied for Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and 18 other Japanese electronic companies during the drafting of the 1988 trade bill.

It's a sad turn in American politics -- and a long road for Bill Clinton. Because of the system and the decline of his party by its own hand, the Democratic candidate for president represents only himself.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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