No End for the Dems' Disunity

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Joshua Roberts / Getty

Supporters of Hillary Clinton rally as the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee prepares to meet to determine how to count the primary votes from Michigan and Florida.

For most of Saturday, the media circus of hundreds of protesters outside the Democratic National Committee's special meeting to decide whether to seat Florida and Michigan's delegations was not mirrored inside the doors of the Marriott Wardman Hotel in Washington. As the 30 member Rules & Bylaws Committee heard the various arguments for softening the punishment the DNC had originally meted out to the two states for holding their primaries earlier in the calendar, the audience by and large kept its calm. But then, about nine hours into the seemingly interminable gathering, the crowd turned nasty and the appearance of civility, along with any hopes for party unity, never quite returned.

It happened as Alice Germond, secretary of the Democratic National Committee who so far has remained neutral in the presidential race, started talking about the civil rights movement as well as the importance of playing by the rules. Suddenly it dawned on the Hillary Clinton supporters in the audience that the committee was not going to go their way. "I was incredibly proud to come down here as a student on the mall and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King talk about civil rights," said Germond, as the crowd simultaneously began to hiss, cheer and shush, her voice being drowned out by the roar. "We are not the current administration who plays lose with rules," Germond continued, her voice rising a little desperately to dampen down the onslaught of outrage that was just beginning. "I'm feeling very badly that we can't seat Michigan and Florida in full," she virtually yelled over shouts of "Shame on you!"

The noise they made was the sound of the Democratic Party fracturing: one third for Obama cheering, one third for Clinton booing and the rest, including the chagrined members of the panel, frantically hushing both sides as if to say, 'Don't go there, don't show the Republicans how dysfunctional we are.' It was also a cry of desperation, because the panel's ruling virtually ensured that the door was slamming on Clinton, who with three races to go now has little chance of overcoming Obama's lead. The meeting only went downhill from there, with committee co-chair Alexis Herman pounding the gavel in a vain attempt to restore order and Harold Ickes, a senior Clinton advisor and member of the committee, claiming the panel was "hijacking" democracy and threatening to appeal the ruling well into the summer.

It was a fiery end to what had been a mind-numbingly long meeting, full of familiar arguments and bureaucratic pacing. The states spent much of the morning and early afternoon making their cases that they have been punished enough for leapfrogging the primary calendar against the Democratic National Committee's rules. Representatives from Hillary Clinton's campaign argued for why both delegations should be seated in full and in a manner fully reflective of her substantial victories in the two states. Representatives from Barack Obama's campaign countered that he wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan, and suffered at the polls in Florida because he wasn't able to campaign there. Then the committee broke for what was supposed to be a one hour lunch, and both Clinton and Obama supporters repaired to the hotel bar, alternately cheering when images of their favored candidates flashed across the television screens.

Instead, the panel's lunch turned into a three-hour closed-door session, during which the members finally agreed on a compromise — though it was basically the position taken by the Obama campaign, not to mention the one Republicans smartly came up with for their side long before the disputed primaries took place: seat both delegations but grant each only half a vote per delegate as a penalty. In what the Obama campaign called a "gift" to Clinton they agreed to seat Florida's delegates based on the results of that state's January 29th primary, yielding Clinton a net gain of 19 delegates. "A concession? Give me a break. Under their formula Hillary Clinton loses delegates,"scoffed Ickes. "It's just a perversion of words to call it a concession."

The committee also voted to seat Michigan's full 157-member delegation, each with half-a-vote. But because Obama had (along with John Edwards) taken himself off the ballot, figuring out how to apportion the delegates was much trickier. Following a plan endorsed by the Michigan Democratic Party, the committee voted to allot Clinton, who won 55% of the vote, 69 delegates, and Obama, who most believed was the overwhelming choice of the 40% of Michigan primary voters who chose "uncommitted", 59. If the delegates had been meted out based strictly on the actual vote Clinton should've gotten 73 delegates, and her supporters claimed, Obama should have gotten no delegates, at least until the convention when the uncommitted could state their preference.

"Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her rights to take this to the Credentials Committee," said Ickes, referring to the committee of appeal. "There's been a lot of talk about party unity let's all come together and put our arms around each other. I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, than hijacking four delegates ... is not a good way to start down the path of party unity."

Ickes' angry sermon, as it turned out, was just the prelude to a near total meltdown at the end. The other committee members grimaced at the shouts of derision, which included chants of "McCain 08,""Bastards," and "Denver," an echo of their hopes that Clinton would take her case all the way to the Democratic National Convention to be held in August in Denver. After the meeting adjourned, women sat on the floor sobbing, while others, like Pennsylvania voter Betty Jean King, 60, a retired teacher from Shippensburg, ranted to television cameras: "If it's not Hillary, I'm voting for McCain. 17 million people voted for Hillary and I'm telling you many of them are going to defect."