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Primary Evidence

10:51 AM, Mar 13, 2008 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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The controversy surrounding the status of Michigan's and Florida's presidential-nomination delegates continues. Pundits and critics have examined the actions and decisions of three parties involved, but have overlooked perhaps the most interesting actor in the fray: Barack Obama. His conduct in this controversy substantially undercuts his claims to superior judgment.

So far, analysis of the Michigan-Florida fiasco has focused on the actions of:

(1) Florida and Michigan, which unflinchingly violated the DNC's rules for scheduling primaries and caucuses in order to claim more powerful positions in the nominating process, and which now seek to undo the damage;

(2) the DNC, which responded to the states' actions by imposing the functional equivalent of the death penalty--stripping the states of all of their delegates (and thereby "disenfranchising" the Democratic voters of two states critical to the general election);

(3) and Hillary Clinton, who ignored the DNC's decision, campaigned in both states, and won each state's primary.

Barack Obama, by contrast, has endured little (if any) critical examination. The lack of scrutiny is unwarranted. Like Clinton, Obama faced a straightforward choice after the DNC announced that Florida and Michigan would face sanctions: He could either try to win those states in spite of the DNC's initial decision, or cede them to the Clinton campaign.
To be clear, when Clinton and Obama faced this choice, there was no reason to believe that the DNC would not eventually seat the states' delegates, notwithstanding the DNC's initial decision to strip the states of their delegates. Then as now it would require a willing suspension of disbelief to suggest that the DNC would insert an irrevocable thumb in the eyes of the voters in two states that will be critical to the November 2008 general elections. Indeed, in December 2007, the Michigan Democratic Chairman expressed confidence that the state's delegates would be seated at the national convention. (DNC Chairman Howard Dean's slow back-track from his initial zero-tolerance stance only ratifies the state chairman's confidence.)

Clinton chose to engage and win both states' primaries, hoping that the DNC would eventually seat her delegates, or at least hold new elections. She now is in a position to argue against the "disenfranchisement" of Florida and Michigan voters. In a best-case scenario, she will get to keep the delegates that she earned in the first election. At the very least, if the states hold a re-vote, she will campaign from the moral and rhetorical high ground of not having abandoned the voters of those states in the face of Howard Dean's empty threats.

By sharp contrast, Obama chose to accept the DNC's initial Florida and Michigan decisions at face value. He washed his hands of the Florida and Michigan voters, and now is left to appear to oppose those voters' right to contribute to the selection of the Democratic nominee. In a worst-case scenario, the DNC's credentialing committee will allow the primaries' results to stand and will seat the Michigan and Florida delegates. Obama's best-case scenario appears to be mail-in primaries in both states, an option that the Obama campaign finds less than appealing.

Furthermore, the ramifications of Obama's actions are not limited to the primary campaign. Even if he survives this misstep and secures the party's nomination, he will have to fight hard for Michigan's and Florida's votes against John McCain. Each state is of critical import and, according to early polls, neither state will be an easy win for him. In Florida, especially, Obama will need every vote he can get. His expenditures there this summer and autumn may well dwarf the money he saved by avoiding the state in the spring.

In short, Obama's decision to accept the DNC's initial ruling needlessly harmed his standing in both states and ceded Clinton the high ground in this controversy. What conclusions should the public draw from that error?

First and foremost, Obama's political judgment has suffered a major blow. He has revealed an Achilles' Heel: While Clinton fought for the votes of Florida and Michigan, the DNC's initial decision notwithstanding, Obama took the DNC's draconian punishment of the states at face value, packed up his campaign, and moved on to other states.

Obama proudly stakes his candidacy largely on his self-proclaimed "judgment and courage." Given that the short span of his government service provides little evidence of such qualities, the execution of the Obama campaign may itself provide the most effective evidence in support of or contrary to his rhetoric. The Michigan-Florida fiasco certainly does not weigh in his favor.

Yet a second, more pressing fault is suggested. Obama's ready acceptance of the DNC's initial ruling only serves to corroborate a primary criticism of his candidacy: that President Obama would take the "parchment promises" of foreign nations at face value, too. Put more bluntly, will he accept the assurances of Iran as uncritically as he accepted the assurances of the DNC, devoting too little critical attention to the substantive conduct underlying these countries' nominal commitments? Clinton has repeatedly criticized Obama on this point, as will McCain. Obama must prove that he can distinguish real conduct and interests from nominal promises; given the opportunity to do so in Florida and Michigan, he played the fool.