Let the parties party

Mike Luckovich’s recent cartoon, “Latest Ploy,” slyly satirized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s attempt to explain why she, and not Barack Obama, deserves the Democratic presidential nomination -- even if Obama were to enter the convention with a lead in pledged delegates or the popular vote. In the panel, Hillary, pointer in hand, stands in front of a chart showing NCAA basketball brackets and says: “My picks have done better than his.”

Hillary’s mythical Final Four strategy, the cartoon implies, is no more opportunistic or insincere than the suggestion by some of her supporters that she deserves the votes of superdelegates because she has prevailed in states rich with electoral votes. Of course, if Obama had the edge in hypothetical electoral votes, Clinton’s supporters would be noting that some of those states are likely to go Republican in a general election.

The scramble to provide a formula under which a Clinton nomination could be justified is an obvious example of the electoral end justifying the methodological means. It is meant to preempt arguments that a Clinton nomination leveraged by superdelegates would be so illegitimate as to qualify as a “coup.”


Less examined are two larger fallacies.

One is that the nomination process must be democratic and that pledged delegates secured in primaries and (maybe) caucuses are morally superior to unelected superdelegates and that candidates should be able to “turn” them.

Sez who? Party nominations, while they often make use of the machinery of primaries administered by state election officials, aren’t simply the first drafts of the general election, though that is obscured by the fact that some states have “open” primaries in which non-party members can participate.

This fact will be made plain if, as so many journalists secretly hope, the Democratic nominee is chosen at a “brokered” convention, a la the gathering in my favorite political movie, “The Best Man.” But even without a brokered convention, the ultimate objective of a nomination contest is not the selection of the best-qualified person; it’s the selection of the best-qualified person who can beat the other party’s nominee in a general election.

To argue that the super-delegates would be acting corruptly, or even undemocratically, by bucking the bottom line of votes cast (or delegates chosen) in primaries would be to engage in what philosophers call a “category mistake.” (That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be pressure on super-delegates, on this or any other pretext, to support Obama.)

Even supporters of Obama privately would concede that the nomination apparatus -- superdelegates included -- is about more than democracy in the one-person, one-vote sense. Much more heretical is my other point: that even the general election between the parties’ nominees will not be a completely democratic exercise.

I’m not referring here to the constitutional dirty secret that voters actually aren’t voting for the president but for another sort of superdelegate: a member of the electoral college. Or that the electoral college system, as Al Gore can tell you, sometimes produces a result at variance with the national popular vote.

My point is different: Presidential elections always reflect more (or less) than the collective will even of people who choose to go to the polls. The secrecy of the voting booth often serves as a metaphor for the supposedly discrete decision by a voter to make his or her choice. But no voter is an island: We wouldn’t have campaign-finance laws -- or challenges to such laws -- if voters were atomized individuals impervious to outside influence.

One of ’s most important purposes is to empower us to change the minds of our fellow citizens, either with an appeal to logic or a pitch to self-interest. And if our candidate still seems to be in bad shape, we have ways to prevent an accurate plebiscite on his qualifications. The most familiar method is to ramp up efforts to increase the turnout on our side. The vagaries of turnout and fundraising mean that when our candidate loses, we can argue plausibly that the people really haven’t spoken. (Or, if they have, that it wasn’t because of the victor’s preposterous position on X or Y issue.)

To dewy-eyed democrats of both parties, this probably sounds cynical. To me, it’s reassuring. I have written elsewhere that I am a “low-church democrat,” defined as someone who views democracy the way a “low-church” Episcopalian views the institutional church: as a means to an end -- salvation for the Christian, good government for the voter who realizes that “democratic” isn’t always interchangeable with “wise” or “just.”

The next president will owe his or her election not only to the people’s support but to a plethora of “ploys,” some only slightly more ridiculous than an appeal for votes based on foreknowledge of the Final Four. That will make it easier for the president, when necessary, to defy his own mandate.

Michael McGough is The Times’ senior editorial writer. Respond at opinionla@