03/11/2008 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic Party's Clintonian Rules

On the surface, it is easy to dismiss the Democratic Party's current nomination struggles as a mix of incompetence and bureaucratic procedure gone mad. There is some of that, of course, but it is mostly there to hide the fact that Democrats, like Republicans, have designed a system that will strongly favor the establishment candidate. The result, for both parties, is that the nominee is nearly always the next in line or the institutionally preferred one (in recent decades this has included Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, both Bushes, Bob Dole and John McCain).

The way Republicans pick their presidential candidates is notorious for its brutal emphasis on selecting the anointed nominee as early as possible, thanks in great part to its "winner take all" system. On the surface, the Democrats' rules, including some form of proportional representation, would seem to open up the contest to outsiders by allowing them to rack up delegates even if they don't win a state outright.

In fact, the Democratic Party has structured its system in a way that thwarts insurgency. It promotes secrecy (thanks to the presence of superdelegates who are free to strike deals with any candidate at any time without any formal scrutiny), creates the need for vast amounts of money because of the complexity of competing for every pledged delegate in every state, and sustains the legal and ethical uncertainty that comes from a near-incomprehensible set of rules.

The process, while not created by the Clintons, is perfectly Clintonian, and it is no coincidence that Bill Clinton is the only recent exception to the rule of the party-anointed favorite gaining power (he was hardly an outsider, even in 1992, but certainly not at the top of the list of establishment-preferred candidates, especially after the Gennifer Flowers scandal in the middle of the campaign -or was it Paula Jones?).

It is also no surprise that Hillary Clinton holds out hope for the nomination despite the long odds: she combines an insider-chosen status with the Clinton skill at working the system, any system, and this one was essentially designed for her. It also explains her camp's occasional outbursts of rage at the upstart Barack Obama's success in outwitting her so far.

There is no clear path to the nomination for Clinton except through convoluted challenges to rules that she has previously embraced or through a series of 20-point defeats of Obama in every upcoming contest (for some perspective: this has only happened once for her this year, in Arkansas, and not one poll shows her at that level in any remaining state). Even with retakes in Florida and Michigan, Clinton will not win the pledged delegate race.

It is likely that the Clintons simply never envisaged this situation. That it didn't occur to them that Obama would raise so much money and otherwise manage his campaign so brilliantly that he'd become the frontrunner and probable nominee. They certainly underestimated him, but perhaps even worse for her, they misjudged the mood of the country for change and Obama's crossover appeal. This wouldn't matter enormously if it didn't threaten her ultimate cushion against failure, the superdelegate vote. As Obama crushes Clinton in state after state in which there are critical congressional races in November, and as polls show him far stronger than she is in a general election, the likelihood that she can secure enough additional superdelegates is dwindling very fast.

In the Senate alone, there are more than half a dozen seats at stake in states which strongly favored Obama in the primary, and/or give him a far better chance than Clinton against McCain in November: Virginia, Colorado, Alaska, New Mexico, Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota and North Carolina. In the House, dozens of Democrats are competitive as incumbents or challengers in districts won by George W. Bush in 2004, many of them in places that are likely to favor Obama this fall (the recent Democratic special election victory in IL-14, a GOP stronghold in which Obama campaigned for his party, was just a taste of the possibilities that await the Democrats this fall with the right candidate in charge). With that in mind, it is not difficult to understand why Obama has recently been ratcheting superdelegate endorsements at a far higher rate than Clinton has (she went for a month without one new addition to her list, actually losing a few). And why most Democrats in swing states and districts will be praying for Obama to be at the top of the ticket, especially if a filibuster-proof majority of 60 is within reach in the Senate.

Of course, the Clintons are not concerned about the down-ticket effect of a general election Hillary candidacy: they invented triangulation in the 1990s, undermining the Democratic Party in Congress and shutting it out of power for 15 years. It is ironic that just as the party has regained its Senate and House majorities, a Clinton is lurking in the background, hungry for the kind of power that is likely, once again, to return Congressional control to a national GOP that was all but left for dead until recently.