THE BLOG
03/18/2008 03:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

History Lesson for Robert Torricelli...and Hillary Clinton

Dear Robert Torricelli:

I read your March 13 column on PolitickerNJ, the "virtual watercooler for [New Jersey's] political elite," about how everyone (who's anyone, I surmise) recognizes the need for superdelegates.

My reaction to your column, Torch, is that you are the avatar of all that is wrong with the Democratic "establishment." Your continued existence as a party insider and "leader" embodies the morally-bankrupt proclivities of too many Democratic elites -- and Senator Hillary Clinton's scorched-earth campaign to take the White House (though you neglected to admit that you are affiliated with her campaign).

Let's start with the fact that you walked away from your U.S. Senate seat with your tail between your legs in 2002, after being implicated in bribery and campaign finance scandals. How much tainted money did you raise for Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, as one of her biggest supporters and chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee? Your many years in Washington, including 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and your term in the Senate, sure don't bode well for that experience argument in the Clinton establishment arsenal.

You certainly didn't leave office with any kind of remorse about the wrong-doing we know about -- the money and gifts you took from Korean-American businessman David Chang. You left because the polls predicted you'd be blown out by your virtually unknown Republican opponent -- in New Jersey -- a state that hadn't elected a Republican in more than 30 years. But with your fund-raising prowess, the Clintons made sure you stayed in the fold, didn't they?

The very next year, in 2003, you were raising money for John Kerry, an establishment pick for presidential nominee in 2004. Kerry (I hope unknowingly) eventually became the party's nominee in no small part because of your efforts to knee-cap insurgent candidate Howard Dean, most pointedly with your $50,000 donation to the 527 PAC, Americans for Jobs and Health Care. That money helped to pay for those precious ads that juxtaposed Dean with Osama bin Laden in an opprobrious and successful attempt to raise doubts about Dean's foreign policy ideas. It was your version of the red phone tactic -- although you tried to keep your participation on the down-low, because back then it was considered bad form for surrogates of Democratic candidates to openly attack fellow Democratic candidates.

Tell us, Torch. I know you're a proud HillRaiser, but are you also behind the misleading ads aired in Ohio and Texas (and soon Pennsylvania), by the new pro-Hillary 527, the American Leadership Project? Since FEC filings from ALP appear not to disclose all of the group's funders, I'm left to wonder whether you're a silent donor, still funneling your old Senate campaign "trust fund" and other cash into coffers supporting your establishment buddies' shadier activities. This new 527 sure looks like something you'd have a hand in.

Frankly, I don't see why rank-and-file Democrats should listen to anything you have to say. But, let's pretend for a moment that your column is worth answering because, as a water-carrier for the Clinton campaign, you are advancing one of the many kitchen-sink arguments that Clinton surrogates are busily unloading on the American public: the idea that you so-called leaders and superdelegates know what's best for the Democratic party. The implication is that it will be perfectly fine -- even desirable -- for the minions, should you all decide, in your infinite wisdom and "independent judgment," to take the nomination away from the candidate who leads in pledged delegates, the popular vote and states won.

In your column, you gave a World-According-to-Torch history of how the Democratic party leaders had to save the party from a motley crew of insurgent candidates and anti-war activists, because it was supposedly that crew that had broken the Democratic party's nomination process. "Successive insurgencies in 1968 and 1972 left deep ideological scars on the Party," is how you put it.

How about I'll play the Ghost of Democratic Nominations Past, and we can remember together how it really was?

Look over here, and it's 1968. See Vice President Hubert Humphrey sitting there all smug after Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term? Humphrey didn't even bother to run in the primaries in the 14 states that held them that year, because as the establishment's presumptive nominee, he could just gather in his winning number of delegates via favorite son delegations and party bosses like Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley. Once Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, his supporters split between Eugene McCarthy and late-entry George McGovern, effectively making the anti-war vote null and void. After the police beatings of those who were protesting the war and Humphrey's nomination (and the subsequent riots) at the Chicago Convention, and with third-party candidate George Wallace pilfering a good bit of the Dixiecrat vote, Humphrey was unable to bring the party back together, and the presidency went, by wafer-thin margin, to Richard Nixon.

The lesson here is not that an insurgent candidate damaged the party, but that the establishment's stranglehold on the nomination process resulted in the party putting forth a candidate who was unacceptable to most rank-and-file Democrats. In choosing to install their candidate rather than to allow Democrats to choose their nominee by way of a democratic process, 1968 is an example of establishment failure -- coupled with the tragic murder of a Democratic insurgent candidate.

Now, look through the mist back to 1969, when George McGovern was named chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, tasked with reforming the Democratic Party nomination process. This commission significantly reduced the role of party officials and insiders, after the disappointments of 1968, and elevated the importance of caucuses and primaries, to better represent the will of the people. It also mandated new representation quotas for women, minorities and youth.

Take my hand, Torch, and follow me into 1972. Humphrey's '68 running mate, Edmund Muskie, was the establishment pick and considered the Democratic front-runner, until a poor showing in Iowa, some successful Nixon "ratfucking," and a few tears sent his campaign into a tailspin, and the nomination eventually went to McGovern.

But McGovern's reform work had marginalized the influence of Democratic party bosses, and in retaliation these Democrats refused to support their own party's candidate, and even organized a "Democrats for Nixon" campaign. With Nixon's camp pulling the dirty tricks against McGovern that would ultimately lead to Nixon's resignation, and with McGovern's running mate dropping his electro-shock treatment bomb -- and those vindictive establishment Dems throwing their support behind a Republican -- McGovern suffered his landslide defeat. Again, it was not an insurgent candidate hurting the party or process; it was Republicans and miffed Democratic elites who did the damage.

By 1981, after the bitter nomination battle between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy, you party officials were bound and determined to take back some power for yourselves. Under the auspices of the Hunt Commission, you dreamed up the idea of "super" delegates, a class comprised of elected and other party officials, which made up about 15% of the Convention. Over the years, the percentage of unpledged delegates (or superdelegates) has grown by about 5%, and superdelegates now comprise 20% of the delegates overall.

You struggled in your column, Torch, to convince rank-and-file voters that the 2008 primaries "are unlikely to produce a clear victor," and that "the good news is that hundreds of elected officials will be in the convention to help choose a winner. Then, when the choice is made, they'll feel accountable for the nominee's success in the election and in governing."

But in your Clintonian parsing of information, you neglect to say that it is mathematically implausible for Clinton to catch Obama in pledged delegates, popular vote or states won. You do not say openly that your best hope is to scare the superdelegates into handing your candidate the nomination. Rather than admitting defeat graciously (as other candidates have done upon seeing the realities of delegate math) and helping to bring the party together, the Clinton plan is to see the party waste millions of dollars to carry this high-pitched and painfully divisive campaign through the remaining states, and right to the convention -- only to have the superdelegates flout the will of the people.

I doubt that most folks will call that "leadership."

You, your fellow Hunt Commission buddy, Geraldine Ferraro, and (sadly) even former superdelegate Eliot Spitzer had your chances and you blew them. You three Hillary Clinton surrogates will have to forgive me if I no longer care to be told what's best for me by the likes of longtime party pols who a) accept bribes, b) defiantly make and defend racist remarks, and c) cheat on their wives with 22-year-old prostitutes (or 21-year-old interns, for that matter).

After the long Bush/Cheney nightmare, the people are engaged and know what's best. Perhaps this will be the year an insurgent candidate, Senator Barack Obama, can withstand the establishment's below-the-belt primary blows, make it to the top of the Democratic ticket -- and not be undercut by his own party come November.

As an Obama supporter, I fervently hope that in my 42nd year I actually witness the flushing of corrupt old-guard elements (represented by your continued "leadership") from the Democratic party, because the people deserve to try a new kind of politics. We can't do any worse than your cut-throat and ethically-challenged modi operandi, and the triangulation game you establishment Dems have played -- and mostly lost -- for a generation.

With cross-over appeal and youthful energy that isn't extinguished by the disappointment of seeing the culture of fear and lies once again claim the prize, perhaps we'll have a much-needed political realignment. Perhaps we'll create a new American majority that can work together and make some real progress on the myriad challenges we face, rather than remain stymied in the partisan divides that have been the hallmark of politics in my lifetime.

Or maybe Hillary, should she fail to woo the superdelegates with cocktails and bogus big-state theories, will start a "Democrats for McCain" movement.

Oh, wait. She already did that.