We are halfway through February and there’s no end in sight. As Barack Obama pulls ahead in the neck-and-neck race, the latest specter to excite election observers is the possibility of a nail-biter decided by superdelegates. Should unpledged party operatives and officials not chosen by primary and caucus voters pick the Democrats’ next nominee? It would not be the first time popular hopes were dashed by Democratic leaders. Remember 2006.
On November 7, 2006, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans at the polls for the first time in any midterm since 1990. Repelled by the Bush Administration’s record at home and abroad, voters turned out in droves and elected a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. As in 2004, people didn’t merely cast ballots; they walked blocks, raised money, monitored polling places and canvassed strangers in far-off states urging them to vote. Asked in exit polls what was their most pressing issue, 40 percent of Democrats identified Iraq. No other issue came close.
Fourteen months on, the Democratic majority (albeit slim in the Senate) has disappointed those voters, and Congressional approval ratings are down below Bush’s. Not only has the deadly deployment in Iraq not ended; the number of troops there has increased, and both of the party’s would-be nominees–along with the majority of Democrats in Congress–have refused to use their power of the purse to cut off funds for the war. Party leaders have dismissed every demand for impeachment investigations of the Bush cabal. As for restoring the habeas corpus rights of noncitizen detainees, eliminating military tribunals or roundly repudiating the Administration’s policies on spying and torture–no luck. Even on the less politically loaded issues of domestic security and economic justice, not much has changed except that today it’s not only New Orleanians who are losing their homes. The real and metaphorical levees around our cities and farms just keep crumbling.
Like desert flowers in Death Valley, grassroots Democrats have sprung into action again this season in part because they’re parched for their party’s attention. Dolores Huerta, chair of Women for Kerry in 2004, told me last year that many women are excited simply to have a candidate who doesn’t take their votes for granted. (John Kerry famously told a gathering of Women for Kerry that he wasn’t going to single out women for attention because he didn’t want to “pander” to a “special interest.”) Huerta’s United Farm Workers of America endorsed Hillary Clinton shortly before the California primary, and female and Latino voters carried their candidate to victory there, just as African-Americans and young voters have bedrocked Senator Obama in part because they feel he actually cares about them.
But an invitation to the party is not the same as a seat at the table. The young voters, poor voters, secular, female, people of color, lesbian and gay, progressive and antiwar voters who have the candidates’ attention at the moment belong to the part of the Democratic base whose interests are perennially sidelined by party higher-ups come the general election–and way before anyone gets down to the pay-to-play business of governing.