In March 2008, officials in then Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign were absolutely livid at the public quip by then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the party's super-delegates should not have the final say so on who the Democratic presidential nominee should be. The great irony in Pelosi's dismiss of super-delegates was that she was backing Obama, not Hillary Clinton's, bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Pelosi had blown off super-delegates at the very moment Obama's campaign had taken off and he, not Clinton, was piling up huge loads of pledged delegates. The super-delegates had suddenly become a potential distraction, if not outright threat, to derail Obama's march to the nomination. But Pelosi's inference about the potential chaos that super-delegates could cause was clear. They could be a good and a bad thing depending on which potential Democratic nominee they were lining up behind.
Fast forward eight years to presidential campaign 2016, Pelosi isn't likely to utter a peep of criticism about the dubious role of super-delegates. Most now are comfortably nestled in the Clinton support column, and though she hasn't endorsed Clinton, she's dropped strong hints that she's her pick. So where does this leave Sanders? He has repeatedly complained that something is wrong somewhere when a bunch of governors, Congresspersons, Democratic party elders, big gun officials, and everybody on the Democratic National Committee, who together make up about 15 percent of the overall number of delegates needed to nab the nomination, can decisively tip the nomination to Clinton no matter how many states Sanders wins.
Sanders has a good and bad case about the outsized role of super-delegates. In 1982, Democratic Party officials cooked up the idea of having super-delegates as a fail-safe firewall against the horror in their eyes of having what happened in 1972 happen again. That was the year George McGovern got the party to hold lots more primaries, and then rode the crest of the anti-war, civil rights, student protest, and populist wave, to win them and bag the Democratic presidential nomination. McGovern was thoroughly trounced by Nixon in the general election. Super-delegates would be the guard at the hen house door to ensure that any future Democratic presidential candidate would have to be properly establishment, credible, presentable, and electable in the general election. There would be no more wild man nominees.
This was a valid concern, and so it was not unreasonable for the party top cats to position themselves to have some way to ease out of the picture a potential nominee who might be hit with a scandal or unsightly controversy before the convention. Or, to make sure GOP dirty tricksters couldn't rally conservative voters to stuff the ballot boxes in open primary states for the weakest of the weak, i.e., the most beatable, Democratic candidate.
The problem, though, is that while this all makes good political sense, there's still the pesky point that super-delegates with few exceptions can, and do, ignore polls and primary wins, the popularity and appeal of a potential nominee, even the electability of one of their own. The odd thing is that the GOP which also has super-delegates, though a lot less of them than the Democrats, according to GOP party rules must bow to the will of the voters in a state's primary. That is if a candidate wins the Lion's share of the votes in a district in the state the GOP super-delegates must vote in accord with the majority. That's democracy with a little "d." In this case anyway, the GOP is heads up over the Democrats in making sure that their super-delegates can't totally make up the rules of the game themselves.
So this puts Bernie in the unenviable position of either blasting the game as Trump has done when he screams that the GOP establishment has rigged the party game against him. Or, do as Obama did in 2008 and that was to systematically court, schmooze, and wheel and deal to pry super-delegates away from Clinton, and maybe wink and nod as his supporter's publish the phone numbers, and addresses of the super-delegates and then scream, harangue, and berate them to back Sanders.
This is about as democratic as it's going to get in trying to play the super-delegate game. In the end, Sanders (who himself qualifies as a super-delegate by virtue of being a Senator) knows and knew going in that these are the party rules, as terrible as they are if you're on the losing end, and maybe even on the winning end. That's because it could poison the party well to the point where legions feel that their guy, namely Sanders, was robbed by men and women who operate like the old party bosses who hand-picked the Democratic presidential nominee in the old smoke filled back room. However, it goes with the super-delegates, Sanders does and doesn't have a case against them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is From Sanders to Trump: A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Primary Battles (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Saturdays 9:00 AM on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network