The Muhammad Ali Moment

My piece in today’s Guardian newspaper:


Last week I convinced my editors to let me write a piece on the fabled “Brokered Convention.” To U.S. political junkies born in the past half century, this is a mythic beast, like the unicorn or snow leopard… It might or might not exist, it might or might not be a figment of our imagination. But if it turns out to be real, and if we ever see one, my word… we could all die happy.


Back in the day, primaries and caucuses didn’t exist. Instead, party bigwigs gathered in smoky rooms, cut deals, gave and extracted promises… fought each other into bizarre, and lengthy, stalemates. Then, gradually the bigwigs began ceding power: from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, ordinary party members across the country began taking more control over the candidate selection process.


By the World War One years, at the backend of a decade of Progressive-era election reform, a sort of comprehensive primary system was in place, albeit one that left tremendous power with the party bosses. Ordinary voters didn’t vote for presidential candidates; instead, they voted for delegates – and the delegates didn’t have to tell their voters upfront, and certainly didn’t have to give cast-iron guarantees, as to which candidate they’d be supporting. And, at least in some states, this is how it would remain into the 1970s.


Not surprisingly, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, stalemate was commonplace, as multiple candidates vied for supremacy. Until the onset of televised election coverage, and the rise of a competitive-because-televised primary culture, many leading candidates didn’t even bother to contend the primaries and caucuses, instead relying on unelected delegates – the Superdelegates of their era – or elected-but-uncommitted delegates to end-run the voters and hand them the nomination. In 1924, when the delegates couldn’t agree on a boss-approved man of the moment, the Democrats had to go through an amazing 102 rounds of balloting at their convention before a presidential candidate eventually emerged. Of course, given John W. Davis’s failure to capture the White House that November, one could well argue the sleepless days of head-butting and horse trading were all for naught.


The last time the GOP ended up in a convention tussle was in 1948; the Democrats followed four years later, ultimately choosing Adlai Stevenson, one of the best candidates never to be elected president, as their man. Since then, the increasingly frenzied, media-saturated, primary system has worked more efficiently to generate nominees-apparent.


Of course, there was the snafu in 1968, when police and anti-war protestors clashed outside the Democratic Party’s convention in downtown Chicago, and Chicago’s Mayor Daley was witnessed hurling anti-Semitic diatribes at Senator Abe Ribicoff, after the senator accused his police of employing Gestapo tactics on the streets outside. But that was the last time a convention produced anything more than staged speeches and smooth coronations.


So… back to last week.


After Super Tuesday, the odds seemed pretty good that the Democrats would be heading into their convention in Denver this summer without an obvious candidate having emerged from the primary season. My God! The fabled beast seemed about to rise from its lair once more. We’d all have to sit through hours, maybe even days, of highly publicized, even if theoretically backroom, wheeler-dealing. It’d be like Jim Callahan’s beer-and-sandwiches sessions with trade union leaders in England in the 1970s – albeit with 24-hour cable news coverage, and lattes instead of nicotine fueling the all-night gatherings. It’d be like watching for the wisp of white smoke to emerge from the chimney of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, signifying the choice of a new pope. It’d be like… well, you get the idea.


A week later, however, I have a new prediction to make. While it’s still possible that neither Obama nor Clinton will head into Denver with quite enough delegates to win outright, my guess is Obama will hit town with a large enough lead, say 250-to-300 delegates out of those directly elected by primary and caucus-goers, that the superdelegates will come around without a fight.


Here’s why: with his wins last week, his convincing Potomac primary victories Tuesday, and the likelihood of his winning Hawaii and Wisconsin next week, Obama will head into the March primaries with more declared delegates than Clinton and an unbeaten record nearly a month long. He’s clearly now the front-runner, and that’s a psychological shift of huge proportions. Listen to his speech in Virginia last Saturday and you’ll hear Obama has taken on the oratorical mantle of candidate-designate. He’s invoking history, claiming historical legacies – from Jefferson to Roosevelt to JFK – and he’s daring Clinton to take him down. The longer she’s unable to do so, the less credible her candidacy – which was always based primarily on managing to inculcate a sense of inevitability in the electorate — becomes.


It remains to be seen whether there’s as much political substance to Obama as there is image. But, make no mistake about it, that image is astonishingly powerful. In his ability to connect with a mass audience, to shift American culture through the force of his words and the sense of his presence, Obama is showing himself to be a combination of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King.


Watch the Illinois senator speak in a setting like the Virginia gathering last week, and you’re watching the Muhammad Ali of modern politics. Here’s a man who can make the most violent of sports beautiful, who can tease his opponents, dance with them, and then suddenly come through with a series of counter-punches devastating in their power.


Hillary Clinton’s good, but she’s not that good. Mano e mano, she’ll lose the PR game every time against Obama. And the longer she loses, the harder it will be for her to score those must-win landslide victories in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania.


My prediction? After Tuesday’s wins, the nomination is Obama’s to lose. If he doesn’t screw up dramatically over the next two months, he’ll open up enough of a lead in the delegate count, and carry with him a large enough majority of the states, to make his nomination all but a formality.


Sure, in theory the superdelegates could hand the nomination to Clinton. But why would they? They might like her, they might owe both Bill and Hillary favors, but at the end of the day they like power. And nominating a candidate who has been outpolled and outperformed would be a surefire way to lose the election come November.


So, no real brokered convention. Oh well… there’s always next time.

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