Democrats' Prolonged Contest Raises Specter of Backroom Deal

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Super Tuesday, Howard Dean expressed his concern that carrying on the nominating fight to the Mile High city in late August would be a disaster for the Democratic party, stating that "if we don't [have a nominee by mid-March or April], then we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement. Because I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention, that would not be good news for either party." I assume that by "either party" he means Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, because it would be great news for the Grand Old Party.

So, yesterday, with the results of Tuesday too close and the final delegate count too open to interpretation to produce any unequivocal winner, Dean found himself even closer to that dreaded scenario of a political cat's game. One wonders if Dean was (and still is) secretly hoping that one of the candidates either implodes or comes close to running the table. For the sake of the party, of course.

The idea of a brokered convention, or even the sort of deal-cutting session that Dean envisioned, is an nightmare scenario for the health of the party going into the general election. Ask any Obama or Clinton stalwart, and the notion that a back-room deal (even if both candidates are in that back room) could fairly and democratically pick the Democratic standard-bearer is likely to send them into conniptions. Just imagine what that would look like -- Dean playing the ostensibly neutral mediator while the Clinton and Obama teams silently stare each other down for a good half hour before storming out. No doubt, either candidate's constituency could more easily accept a general election candidate who "beat" their own candidate the old fashioned way, by racking up enough delegates to the point where the other has to graciously concede.

But what if the candidates really did have to sit down together in a calm, relaxed setting (I would suggest piping in some soothing ocean sounds over the speakers) and come to an arrangement for the betterment of the party? What would happen? The arguments on both sides aren't too hard to predict, and much of the discussion and leverage would depend on each candidate's performance in the upcoming caucuses and primaries. Without a public audience you probably (and mercifully) wouldn't hear quite the same amount of demagoguery about "experience," "change," and "vettedness."

Rather, there would (or at least should) be a greater discussion of objective indicators of who would make the best candidate for the party. For instance, arguments that Hillary Clinton is owed something by the party (or perhaps it would be Bill arguing that it is he who's owed), that her longer Senatorial service, or her age would militate in favor of choosing her are not the sort of dispassionate arguments that would be needed. Similarly, any arguments by Obama that the Clinton family has already had their time in the spotlight, that the nation is hunkering for the change that only he can bring, or that he is a uniter are too loaded and not quantifiable enough. Nor should the argument that "I won't accept the Vice Presidency" carry any water whatsoever. It's such an obstinate and selfish position that the candidate who actually makes that case should be made to go sit in a corner and think about what they just said.

Rather the types of arguments needed would be more objectively measurable. For two campaigns so heavily dependent on polling and metrics, this would seem a more judicious route to resolution. With these baselines in mind, here is a list of what would be a more proper set of criteria for selecting the nominee:

- Who polls better against the Republican nominee nationally and specifically in swing states? Get out the electoral map, average together a dozen or so polls with much larger-than-normal sample sizes, and crunch the numbers.

- Who would be the best candidate for other Democratic candidates to have running at the top of the ticket? In other words, in hotly contested Congressional District X, would the Democratic candidate for that seat do better running alongside Senator Obama or Senator Clinton on the ballot?

- Which campaign has more money in its coffers? Is the difference significant enough to give one candidate an advantage? As much money as has been raised thus far, nearly as much has been spent, and the DNC will have no shortage of contested races (other than the presidency) that need cash infusions.

By getting this far, both candidates have earned the right to be the Democratic nominee. Should this contest go to extra innings, though, there will have to be a set of objective criteria laid down by the DNC, and applied by a transparent system that preserves as much of the public trust as possible. Superdelegates are too much a relic of a bygone era of politics, and simply won't do. But in the meantime, let's hope that someone just runs away with it. That, I could accept.