Fair-Weather Wolverine

Hillary Clinton wants to seat Michigan and Florida delegates. She sang a different tune last year.

Hillary Clinton in Florida

Scarcely a day goes by without Hillary Clinton exhorting fellow Democrats to count every vote—most particularly those cast in the disputed early primaries of Florida and Michigan, which she won. “I don’t understand how you can disenfranchise voters in two states you have to try to win” in the general election, she said in Pennsylvania last week. “I don’t think that is smart for the Democratic Party.” Clinton, of course, has a strategic need to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates, who were denied entry to the nominating convention late last year by the Democratic National Committee after the two states scheduled their primaries earlier than the DNC wished. She needs these delegates to help close her gap with the front-runner, Barack Obama.

It was a different story in October. Back then, Clinton was far and away the national front-runner—by some 20 points in a number of polls. With much less at stake in the matter, she told a New Hampshire public-radio audience, “It’s clear, this election [Michigan is] having is not going to count for anything.” Clinton was unwilling to take her name off the Michigan primary ballot, as Obama and her other significant rivals did, but like them she agreed not to campaign in Michigan or in Florida before their primaries.

On Aug. 25, when the DNC’s rules panel declared Florida’s primary date out of order, it agreed by a near-unanimous majority to exceed the 50 percent penalty called for under party rules. Instead, the group stripped Florida of all 210 delegates to underscore its displeasure with Florida’s defiance and to discourage other states from following suit. In doing so, the DNC essentially committed itself, for fairness’ sake, to strip the similarly defiant Michigan of all 156 of its delegates three months later. Clinton held tremendous potential leverage over this decision, and not only because she was then widely judged the likely nominee. Of the committee’s 30 members, a near-majority of 12 were Clinton supporters. All of them—most notably strategist Harold Ickes—voted for Florida’s full disenfranchisement. (The only dissenting vote was cast by a Tallahassee, Fla., city commissioner who supported Obama.)

Six days later, when the party chairs in the DNC-approved “early” primary states urged Democratic candidates to sign a “four-state pledge” promising not to campaign in any state that violated the DNC calendar, Clinton did not object. She waited, with characteristic prudence, until the other candidates had signed, then signed herself. On Sept. 1, the Clinton campaign issued this ringing statement:

We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina play a unique and special role in the nominating process. And we believe the DNC’s rules and its calendar provide the necessary structure to respect and honor that role. Thus, we will be signing the pledge to adhere to the DNC approved nominating calendar.

Some argue that Hillary had little choice. “She was forced to sign away Florida because her opponents would have used it against her in New Hampshire and Iowa,” says Chris Korge, Clinton’s Florida finance chair. But even with Michigan and Florida cutting in line, Iowa and New Hampshire still ended up holding their caucus and primary first. Would voters in the latter two states—as opposed to Democratic Party officials—really have cared about how much later Florida and Michigan voted?

In October, after Obama and some of the other candidates withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot, Clinton declined to do the same. Her stated reason, however, was not to dissent from the DNC’s decision to disenfranchise wronged Michigan, but rather to mend fences with Michigan voters come November. Besides, Hillary said, there was no reason to remove her name if the results weren’t going to count anyway. “I personally did not think it made any difference,” she said. At the Dec. 1 meeting of the DNC rules committee, Ickes urged Michigan DNC member Debbie Dingell to put off Michigan’s primary to the DNC-sanctioned date of Feb. 5. Dingell refused, arguing that the DNC shouldn’t antagonize large states that would be important in the general election just to soothe egos in the early primary states. “It is an example of the message that is sent when Iowa and New Hampshire put guns at the heads of candidates to say that they will not campaign in this state,” Dingell complained. Ickes and Clinton’s other supporters on the rules committee ignored Dingell’s plea and voted to strip Michigan of its delegates.

What a difference four months make. “We all had a choice as to whether or not to participate in what was going to be a primary,” Clinton told NPR  last month. “Most people took their names off the ballot, but I didn’t.” In other words, her refusal constituted a selfless pledge of solidarity with the Wolverine State rather than a tactical decision to seize what in October seemed the minor advantage of a momentum-enhancing likely victory in a Midwestern beauty contest.

Like every candidate except former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, Clinton stayed away from the Florida state convention in October. Irate Democrats stalked Walt Disney World wearing buttons that said, “Size DOES matter,” a reference to Florida’s large population compared with that of  Iowa or New Hampshire. When Michigan subsequently received its penalty, Clinton agreed with the other candidates that she wouldn’t visit there, either. It was a decision she had cause to regret as early as Jan. 3, when she lost the Iowa caucus to Obama, coming in third, just behind John Edwards. After ignoring Florida and Michigan for months, the Clinton campaign soon couldn’t say enough nice things about them. “Tonight Michigan Democrats spoke loudly for a new beginning,” then-campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle exulted over Clinton’s victory there on Jan. 15. “Your voices matter. And as president, Hillary Clinton will not only keep listening, but will make sure your voice is always heard.”

This was an absurdly celebratory statement given that Clinton’s name had been the only one of the major Democratic contenders’ that appeared on the Michigan ballot. (Even so, Clinton received only 55 percent of the vote against 40 percent for “uncommitted.”) Two weeks later, Clinton herself appeared in South Florida after polls closed on her victory there (50 percent to Obama’s 33 percent). “I could not come here to ask in person for your votes,” she told the crowd. “I am thrilled to have had this vote of confidence.”

Now Clinton feels that a failure to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates would besmirch the democratic process. With Obama ahead on pledged delegates and drawing growing numbers of superdelegates, Clinton will have only a limited ability to affect whether the DNC backs off from its decisions to penalize the two states. Last summer and fall, when the DNC made these decisions, she had a lot more clout. She exercised none of it.