As we went to bed last night, the juicy New York Times headline “Black Leader, a Clinton Ally, Tilts to Obama” tucked us in. The story explained the soon-to-be defection of Georgia Rep. John Lewis from Hillary Clinton’s camp to Barack Obama’s. Lewis is a superdelegate and a civil rights leader whose district voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in Georgia’s Super Tuesday primary. If he officially defected, his change of heart was thought to be a bellwhether for all of Clinton’s superdelegates whose districts voted for Obama. The Times reported that Lewis “said Thursday night that he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Senator Barack Obama in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention,” but that Lewis was still weighing whether to officially endorse Obama.
But after changing his mind on Clinton, he may be changing his mind on Obama. The Times fronted the story as an off-lead this morning, but the denials came flooding in before the story even appeared in its dead-tree version. Lewis’ spokesperson says the Times ’ story and a similar one from the AP were inaccurate, and both campaigns say they haven’t heard from Lewis about a switch. Jeff Zeleny, who co-wrote the Times piece, is standing by his story , and Lewis’ spokesperson later told NBC News that he’s switching his superdelegate vote, but not his endorsement. It seems Lewis has settled on hedging his bets—endorse Clinton (whom he almost surely voted for on Super Tuesday) but give his superdelegate vote to Obama (because his district liked Obama better).
If that’s the case, Obama has an old-fashioned political dilemma on his hands. Lewis is essentially swallowing his pride and personal feelings to listen to his constituents, a process Obama’s campaign has advocated (especially when it favors them). In Lewis they now have a poster boy for “ethical” (read: pro-Obama) superdelegate behavior. Lewis is an elected official, and elected officials get paid to follow the wills of the people—endorsement be damned.
And now Obama is damned if he does praise Lewis and damned if he doesn’t. He can’t exalt Lewis’ switch too strongly or he stands to lose some of his own supers. John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Deval Patrick, for example, would all follow suit and abandon Obama for Clinton because Clinton won Massachusetts. Clinton would be happy to let Obama keep their endorsements, just as long as she got those precious superdelegate votes. As the Democratic race becomes a high-stakes scavenger hunt for superdelegates, it doesn’t matter if a super actually likes you best—just as long as they vote for you first.