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Clinton's Million Little Pieces Moment?

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Senator Clinton's campaign has launched one of the oddest bits of political propaganda in the history of modern politics. Called DelegateHub.com, it is a web site that does nothing less than lay out, in glorious policy-wonk detail, their rationale for stealing the Democratic nomination.

DelegateHub is a mix of tone-deaf assertions about superdelegates ("FACT: Automatic delegates are expected to exercise their best judgment in the interests of the nation and the Democratic Party") and endorsements from politicians who support her goal of thwarting the will of the voters ("Rep. Clyburn (D-SC) says automatic delegate support should not be based on election results.") The idea that the campaign would spend its precious time, money, and energy in a public rebuke to voters in their own party suggests that they really don't understand what we are objecting to. If they keep this line of argument up, it may lead to a "Million Little Pieces" moment for Senator Clinton.

Remember A Million Little Pieces, James Frey's 2003 memoir? When important chunks turned out to be fiction, the most interesting public reaction didn't happen to Frey, it happened to Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey had praised Frey's book on air, selecting it in 2005 for her prestigious book club and adding millions to its sales. When the scandal broke in early 2006, she went in front of her adoring fans with what might be called the Hollywood defense: "Everything done for public consumption is a little bit fictionalized anyway. That's how it works. If Frey went farther than most, well, what's the big deal? As long as the book made you feel real emotion, what does it mater if the events didn't all actually happen?"

This did not go over well. Winfrey's audience turned out to care a great deal about the truth; writing about being in jail for three months, while never actually having spent even a night there, struck them as a violation of trust. Prior to 2006, Winfrey might have been able to weather the discontent she created in her audience with classic political techniques -- go publicly silent and deal with the complainers in private and one at a time ("Dear long-time Oprah fan, We were very sorry to get your recent letter...") A couple of months of that, and the whole thing should have blown over.

But it didn't, because of the internet. Winfrey had embraced the internet as a way to talk to her fans, and to let them talk back to her (or at least her staff). What she hadn't understood, 'til Frey, was that her fans were also talking to one another, not just in book groups of five or eight, but by the thousands, in mailing lists and bulletin boards all over the net. When her fans reacted, they reacted in public, and once they could see how general their anger was, it emboldened them. They didn't back down, it didn't blow over, and in short order, Winfrey, the most universally beloved television figure since Walter Cronkite, had to call for a do-over, this time going on air and castigating everyone involved on behalf of her fans.

Which brings us to Senator Clinton. Faced with fears that she may be planning to ignore our votes, she has gone public with what we might call the Washington defense: "Of course I'm planning to ignore you if you don't vote for me, because I want to win. That's how it works. If I get elected by seating the bogus Florida and Michigan delegates, and convincing party members to vote for me no matter what you want, well, what's the big deal? As long as the process selects a candidate, what does it matter if it isn't the one most of you want?"

This will not go over well. Democratic voters turn out to care a great deal about process; Gore's Electoral College loss in 2000 was a calamity, and the idea that that sort of end-run might be perpetrated on us again by a member of our own party strikes us as a betrayal of trust. And there is no way to integrate Florida and Michigan after the fact, because no competitive election took place there, so no one knows the will of the people in those states. Even worse, not only are Clinton's rationales for increasing the delegate count anti-democratic, they are mutually contradictory. DelegateHub explains her goal to seat Florida and Michigan as a question of fundamental fairness, but in explaining superdelegates, they call the popular vote an arbitrary metric. So which is it: fair, or arbitrary? The campaign never says, because of course, there's no actual principle here. Things that increase her delegate count are good, period.

And of course, the Democratic voters are starting to talk to one another about this, not just in groups of 5 or 8, but by the millions and in public. Given the Clinton campaign's willingness to use the rules of the election to undermine the its purpose, that public conversation is going to get louder, and when the voters see how general our anger is, it will embolden us, forcing a reaction. Winfrey handled her Plan B swiftly and completely, understanding and aligning herself with her fans wishes after her initial missteps. We'll see how Clinton handles herself with the voters.