ABC News’ Jennifer Parker Reports:
With Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama entrenched in a battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, some see a scenario where the race may come down to superdelegates — state and national party leaders, officeholders, former Democratic presidents — who get to act as free agents at the party’s convention.
Below are excepts of an ABC News interview with former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., from a few days ago. Hart argues that his 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was scuttled by superdelegates who had committed early on for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the establishment candidate.
Hart, who is now a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, sees parallels between his 1984 bid and Obama’s 2008 run. He argues Clinton may have a legitimacy problem among the rank-and-file in the party if the superdelegates crown her the Democratic nominee.
ABC News: What’s your opinion of the role of super delegates?
GARY HART: There’s a long history to it going back 35 years. Since the Democratic Party revised its rules and after the chaotic 1968 convention in Chicago and before the 1972 convention, the party found that it had to open itself up and not let the party bosses pick who the nominee for the party would be, and that was at a time, of course, of the Vietnam war, and civil rights, and the feminist movement, and a lot of other things going on.
And after that reform, then there was a counter reform in 1980 in which it was felt that some provision had to be made for party and elected officials so they wouldn’t be shut out simply because they picked the wrong candidate in primaries and caucuses. And that then led to the automatic delegate state by state largely composed of party officials and elected officials and that’s how we end up here.
ABC: That affected you personally at one point, right?
GH: In 1984 I was roughly the equivalent of the Obama candidate, I was the new figure, the new face and it ended up, after elimination of a number of candidates and contests from the beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire, all the way to the convention, between myself and former Vice President Mondale, and the superdelegates in that contest did make the difference. I wanted their support and I didn’t get it.
ABC: Did you question their role at that time?
GH: They were all there according to party rules, so there was very little to question.
I did speak to all 700 of them, my wife and I did, individually between the end of the primaries and the convention, and ask for their support. But many of them had pledged to Vice-President Mondale even before the primaries began and they felt that they were morally obligated to support him even though they felt I might be the stronger candidate.
Many have put their lives into the party, and building the party, or running for office and holding office so they feel that they have some claim on participation and I think that, to a point, is fair. I think that what they should do, however, unlike in my year, is they should keep an open mind until the end of the caucus and primary process, which goes at least till May, and then make their mind up after that, after speaking to both candidates and deciding which one would be more electable, and run the stronger race in the Fall.
ABC: Why didn’t they do that for you?
GH: Vice-President Mondale was being acclaimed by the press and the pollsters as the inevitable nominee — that no one could stop him. And I defeated him in the first primary and then we battled it out through all of the other primaries and caucuses and basically divided the country. I think we each won 25 states, primaries and caucuses, but the difference was the superdelegates. I think what the cautionary lesson from that to superdelegate is to wait and see.
ABC: Do you think it will get to that point this year?
GH: I think so, simply because they’re both so well financed. I had no money and I was just kind of living off the land. Obama has clearly excelled with the Internet which we didn’t have as a fundraising tool at that time. He is able to finance his campaign which will mean as long as he can win states, or show strongly in states, he’ll be able to finance his campaign all the way to the end. It is interesting to me that Mrs. Clinton, with all of the structure and network that she has behind her, seems to be having financial problems and that may plague her as time goes on.
I’m supporting Senator Obama, I have been for some time. I think he’s far and away the best candidate and I think he clearly is a leader of the future and I think we’re living in extraordinarily revolutionary times. And all leadership or previous leadership which Senator Clinton represents is not adequate to address the new realities that the country faces. The key issue is the imperative for the superdelegates to wait and listen and not make pre-judgments until at least the primary season is over.
ABC: Would you like to see the role of super delegates be nixed within the Democratic Party?
GH: We in effect tried that in the period between 1972 and 1984 and there was just such a hewn cry from elected officials and party officials that they thought that they had a right to be delegates at the convention, had earned the right to be delegates at the convention, that this provision was made. It’s not quite pure democracy but it’s one of the accommodations that institutions make.
ABC: Some blogs are saying this isn’t democratic?
GH: If it is close, and if 60 percent of the superdelegates favor one over the other, then the supporters of the one who doesn’t prevail will say it’s unfair.
ABC: Will Clinton have a legitimacy problem if Obama wins the delegates but the super delegates go for Clinton?
GH: I would think so. And to a degree, the same thing happened in my year in 1984, because there were an awful lot of people who felt that I would have run a stronger race against President Reagan. And Mr. Mondale lost very badly and so they felt that the party had made a bad decision. If you went back and asked all those 700 superdelegates, ‘would they do it again?’ an awful lot of them probably would say no.
– Jennifer Parker