It seems to me that if Clinton wins, it matters enormously how she wins.
There are three possibilities here.
First, she could win fair and square: by which I mean getting a majority of the pledged delegates, not counting delegates chosen by non-elections and not counting superdelegates. This is still a possibility; apparently the polls are tight in Wisconsin, and Clinton has an overwhelming lead in the most recent polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obviously these results could change; but if Clinton pulls of a genuine win, well, then she's the choice of the Democratic party under the rules governing that choice. I think that the Democrats will be making an extraordinary mistake if they do this; but it's their mistake to make. So in this case I will grit my teeth and support the choice of my political party.
Second, she could steal the election fair and square. By this I mean she could succeed at what she is apparently planning to try, and use superdelegates to win the election despite having won fewer pledged delegates (but without seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida & Michigan). This would feel a lot like theft to me and to millions of other Obama supporters -- but it is a sort of theft that the Democratic party specifically designed the superdelegate system to pull off. I think the system is a bad idea, but it's certainly defensible. This, to me, would feel like someone winning the presidency by legitimately winning the electoral college while loosing the popular vote. It will feel fundamentally unfair, but it will be an unfairness of the system, rather than one that Clinton just rigged.
None of this is to discourage efforts to pressure the superdelegates to follow the will of the voters. I think those efforts are not only clearly legitimate, but deeply important. (So yeah: go sign the petition!) And, of course, in theory these efforts could backfire on Obama supporters -- scenarios where Clinton wins the pledged delegates but would loose if the superdelegates voted their consciences are by no means implausible.
For that matter I'm hopeful that if Obama wins the pledged delegates but who wins comes down to superdelegates, Obama will still win: as Matt Ygelsias puts it,
there's no real reason to think that the bulk of the currently unpledged superdelegates have a secret preference for Hillary. An early Clinton endorsement was an essentially zero cost move for people to make, so non-endorsers are probably either genuinely undecided or else closet Obama fans.And there are other reasons for superdelegates to support Obama over Clinton, such as fears about her down-ticket effects in the red and purple states (you know -- those states that the Clinton team thinks don't count.) So even if it comes down to superdelegates, it's not clear how it will shake out. (Indeed, this very uncertainty makes the process, illegitimate though it feels, not just an outright theft.) (Update: And then, tonight, an example: John Lewis -- one of the very few people in Congress who can quite fairly and without hyperbole be called an American hero -- just switched his vote (as a Democratic member of Congress, he's automatically a superdelegate) from Clinton to Obama.)
So in scenario two, yeah, I'll grit my teeth, accept that Clinton legitimately won a rigged game, and vote for the lesser of two war-mongers.
Then there's possibility three: Clinton could steal the nomination outright.
By this I mean winning by seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida and Michigan in violation both of her (and Obama's) campaign's pledges, and in violation of Democratic party rules. (Or this in combination with a superdelegate strategy).
As Ezra Klein has argued in an absolutely must-read post, this is not enfranchising voters: it is cynically using them by attempting to change the rules ex post facto. (See also this follow-up from Klein, about how these are not stands on principle, and this from Scott Lemieux.) I mean, for Pete's sake, Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan! (Because he fully fulfilled his campaign's before-the-fact pledge not to count the race -- as did Edwards's campaign, and as Clinton's campaign did not, despite making the same pledges as did Obama and Edwards.)
(Update: If you're concerned about the disenfranchising of voters -- and I agree with Digby that we should be, and that this disenfranchisement (which was, to repeat, agreed to by both the Obama and the Clinton campaigns when it mattered) was a terrible idea -- then we should do as many people have proposed and run new (by which I mean real) primaries in both states. This would be fully legitimate, and I would support it strongly.)
Seating the delegates from the non-election would be another matter entirely.
This wouldn't be legitimately using a rigged system; this would be rigging the system.*
This would be like stealing a state and using that to win the electoral college and thereby become president against the will of the majority of voters.
Would I vote for her then?
I don't know. -- Probably. -- I do believe in the lesser of two evils.
But I'd have to think about it. And I might not.
Because this act wouldn't take place in a vacuum. It would take its place as part of an ongoing series of assaults on American democracy over the past decade -- an assault whose central act was Bush's theft of the Florida election in 2000 (and with it the electoral college and the presidency), but which includes a lot of other things too (bogus voter-ID laws designed to suppress the votes of legitimate voters, Tom Delay's Texas redistricting scheme, etc. -- and, considered in a broader sense, Bush's parallel assault on the Constitution.)
Up until now, this has been almost entirely a Republican effort: they are against fair voting, fair elections, and ballot access. But this would enlist Clinton in the effort -- against the party that (insufficiently, half-heartedly, meekly) stands against them.
Oh, she's already dipped her toe in -- remember Nevada? -- but so far it's been small potatoes. This would be stealing the nomination -- parallel to Bush's stealing of the Presidency, the event which kicked off the terrible era we now live in.
If this happened, it would mean there was no longer a political party that even half-assedly stood for Democracy. It would mean there were two competing dynasties stealing elections to succeed each other. Clinton would have brought Bush politics into the very heart of the party that is supposed to oppose them (however little it actually does).
It would be destructive -- Ezra Klein calls it "cynical, risky politics that brings a lighted match and a can of gas near the Democratic coalition", and warns that it could presage how Clinton would govern: without concern for the progressive coalition, but simply for her own political ambition. But it would not just be destructive for the Democratic party, nor progressive politics: it would be destructive, ultimately, for American democracy.
I am sad to say that I think that Clinton, far from being above it, will do it if she can.
Which means we need to work, hard, to see that she isn't able to.
We should pressure the superdelegates to ratify the choice of the voters -- so that whoever wins will simply win.
But even more so, we should make it clear: if Clinton success in seating the delegates from the non-elections in Florida and Michigan, she'll be stealing outright the election. And she will be shooting the last, best hope of our country squarely in the head.
We must shout about the possible consequences loudly now, so that those who are in a position to abet or defeat a possible attempted theft will hear us, in advance.
Of course, we also should hope that this won't come up -- that Obama will win strongly enough that Clinton won't be able to steal the nomination. (The concept of too big a win to steal, versus narrow enough to steal, is, alas, familiar to us all post Florida-in-2000: how sad it now applies to the Democratic nomination!) So donate if you can, work if you can, vote if you haven't yet, for Obama -- help him win a theft-proof victory.
But, in the meantime, decry any potential theft before it can occur. Because after will be too late.
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* If you're in doubt about the idea that seating the delegates chosen in the non-elections in Florida & Michigan would be stealing the election, go read the previously-linked posts from Ezra Klein, and this from Scott Lemieux. The basic point is that -- to appease the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire -- the Clinton campaign, like the Obama campaigning, agreed that the Florida & Michigan campaigns didn't count, and that they wouldn't campaign there. (And as Lemieux says, "outside the necessity for desperate ad hoc pro-Clinton spin nobody would argue that no-stakes straw polls produce the same results as actual elections, or that campaigns in primary elections don't matter.") If Clinton had stood up for the votes of Floridians and Michiganians before the fact, that would have been a principled stand -- one I would have agreed with and supported. Doing so after she already "won" an election that both sides agreed didn't count is simply an attempt at legal theft -- the same sort that Bush pulled in 2000 (not quite as bad, perhaps, but still the same ballpark.) And one which relies on the fact that Obama -- far more than Clinton -- actually gains adherents as he campaigns. (...but to pursue that line of thought gets into the argument for Obama over Clinton, which is a different topic than the one under discussion here.)