OK, the headline’s trite but true. And the seven Democratic presidential hopefuls preaching to the faithful at last weekend’s California Democratic Convention in San Diego underscores the point.
Democratic presidential hopefuls have historically seen California as the rich aunt of the party—great for hitting up for lots of money but not the one you take to the big dance. Democratic candidates have always raked in cold California cash to campaign for the nomination. But it’s the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other hodgepodge of Southern, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states whose primaries have historically come earlier than California’s—usually months earlier—whom have put candidates over the top in the delegate count.
Not this time. Auntie has gotten an electoral facelift, and now she’s the potential belle of the presidential nominating ball. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. But conventional wisdom is often wrong. Despite moving near the front of the primary pack, California may well prove irrelevant yet again in picking the Democratic presidential champion for 2008. Only this time the entire primary process may have been rendered obsolete, as well.
Why so? Look at whom this front-loaded primary season—with 15 states and half of the national population casting ballots by the time California’s precincts close on Feb. 5—favors. That would be the candidate with all the early name recognition, establishment support, warehouse full of political IOUs to call in and accessible deep, deep pockets to pick necessary to be able to run flat-out from now to what has essentially become a national primary between Jan. 14 and Feb. 5.
And the only candidate matching that description is Bill Clinton.
Er, I mean Hillary.
Face it. Of the eight candidates in this Donkey race, Hillary is the Snow White (OK, Snow Hard-as-Granite White) of this tale, and the others are the dwarves. (One can have no end of fun around the family dinner table coming up with dwarf handles for them: Kucinich as Shorty, Gravel as Kooky, Edwards as Great Hairy and Obama as Oh-My-God-He’s-Got-Charisma-And-I-Would-Have-His-Love-Child-But-I-Ultimately-Have-To-Vote-My-Head-And-Go-For-Snowy.)
Hillary has the Clinton name (a point she downplays in speeches, referring Saturday to Bill only in passing), and that name’s a political machine. And she is nailing down the support of the Democratic powers that be now, nine months before the primaries start. She can pick up the hearts—or at least the votes—of the party rank-and-file later, once she’s driven everyone else from the playing field.
This was made clear on Saturday when she addressed the Democratic delegates in San Diego. The dais, chockablock with California Democratic movers and shakers, was clearly with her, party chair Art Torres leading the cheer. At her follow-up press conference Speaker Fabian Nunez and a delegation from the state Assembly endorsed her. She’s conquering the state party without firing a vote.
The delegates, however, were not so clearly on her side. She entered the hall surrounded by a phalanx of Hillaristas dressed in matching polo shirts. While the Clinton blue shirts cheered her rousingly throughout her speech, the rest of the delegates mostly gave her polite—though at times energetic—applause and a smattering of cheers. But love did not fill the room.
Not so with Barack Obama, who addressed the convention that afternoon. Prior to his speech, a mob of motivated Obama supporters stood outside the convention center cheering his name. When he came to the podium, the response of the delegates was, in a word, thunderous. His speech was by far the most energized and enthusiastically greeted of the day, with more people and press crowding the hall to witness it than had for Hillary. Clinton is a party power. Obama is a rock star. And he clearly won the hall Saturday.
Even John Edwards, given an inferior time slot Sunday morning (when many delegates were still holding their heads from the parties at the various hospitality suites the night before) got a much more emotional, supportive welcome than did the former First Lady. His calls for restoring social justice in America and restoring America’s stature in the world received standing ovations that rivaled Obama’s and outshone anything that had shined on Hillary.
If the Democratic 2008 nomination was resolved solely on the basis of a vote by delegates to the San Diego convention, my bet is you’d be looking at an Obama/Edwards ticket. Maybe Hillary would get Secretary of State.
But as the San Diego Democratic Convention goes, so the rest of the party does not. To begin with, delegates to party conventions come in stark primary colors, attended overwhelmingly by the reddest of red-staters and the bluest of the blues. The Democrats who committed to spending all of the last weekend holed up in the convention center were, in general, more liberal and, indeed, far more romantic (or pathologically obsessed, take your pick) in their conception of whom their champion should be.
With such an audience, Dennis Kucinich—a man whose national stature matches his physical but whose rhetoric (impeach the vice president, end the war now) is bloody red meat for his deep-blue-state audiences—becomes a star.
And charismatic Obama becomes a messiah.
But the diehard Democrats who went to this convention will, come November 2008, ultimately suck it up and vote for whomever the party nominates. In their partisan eyes, even the Clintons’ cat Socks would be a better choice for president than any Republican. Democratic party leaders—and Hillary—know this. So they—and she—can ignore the rank-and-file at this point in the campaign and pile on the endorsements and donors until the money gap between her and her runner-ups becomes insurmountable.
Which ultimately is Clinton’s best strategy for victory and the reason for the ridiculously early start of this primary season, which Clinton helped to trigger with her early declaration of candidacy back in January. Clinton’s other seven rivals are now forced to commit to nine months of debates, state conventions and frenzied campaign organizing—before they even get to be tested by the voters. And those who survive this political hazing will face a primary season front-loaded with big, media-costly states like California, New York and Florida, requiring the money and people to run an essentially national campaign over three frenetic weeks of primary voting.
Result: most of the candidates currently running will be left behind as political road-kill on this pre-primary Bataan death march. Which means that by next January, the Democratic field may well be reduced to three. Kucinich will still be running his no-budget sideshow, if only for the ego stroke it brings him. And a bruised Obama, bleeding money as donors desert him for the surer Clinton thing, will be pushed by the party elite to do the right thing and withdraw so the Democrats go into the primaries united behind their chosen leader.
That would, of course, be Hillary.
The Republican establishment, desperate back in 2000 to retake the White House, did much the same thing. When Republican voters in New Hampshire blew it and went for dark-horse John McCain, the party leadership rallied around the legacy candidacy of George W. and backed Bush while he eviscerated McCain in South Carolina. Pro-Hillary Democrats may well wish to do as much in 2008—albeit in a kinder, gentler manner—throwing so much support so early behind her that she runs over her rivals before the first citizens caucus in Iowa.
If that happens, then all of those who hoped moving this state’s primary forward might finally make the Golden State politically relevant will find their California dreams dashed. But so, too, would all those other states that are jockeying with each other to get to the front of the primary line. This could be the first competitive presidential nominating contest in history resolved before the first primary or caucus ballot is cast.