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Susan Estrich
10 Feb 2016
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The Robot Rule


We called it "the robot rule." I still have an old and slightly rusty pin showing a robot with a red slash through it. "Delegates are not robots" was our rallying cry in seeking to defeat what was then Rule 11(h) of the Delegate Selection Rules, or Rule f(3)(c) of the Convention Rules, which bound delegates to vote at the convention for the candidate to whom they were pledged according to the results of their state's primary or caucus.

The year was 1980. The fight was between incumbent Jimmy Carter and Sen. Ted Kennedy. The Carter forces, in what was an excess of paranoia, although understandable given how their year was going (a hostage crisis, double digit inflation, unemployment, etc), supported a rule that would prohibit pledged delegates — the only kind we had back then — from changing their minds at the convention. The Kennedy campaign, which was my team, challenged the provision at the Rules Committee, and the vote on the Rule became the campaign's reason for continuing until August even though Carter had a solid majority of pledged delegates.

I can't remember how many position papers, speeches, memos and letters I wrote about Rule 11(h), but it was a lot. While some states had their own laws binding delegates to vote in accord with the results of their state's contest, the validity of such laws was open to question, particularly given that the Supreme Court, only months before the 1980 Convention, had ruled in favor of the Democratic Party and against the state law of Wisconsin on the issue of the state's right to conduct an "open" primary in violation of Party Rules.

Moreover, ace legal researcher that I was, I couldn't find a single case of anyone ever having been punished for violating such a state law, and I argued, as did everyone else I wrote speeches for, that delegates should have the same freedom members of the Electoral College did, even if they seldom used it. My favorite hypothetical was the one about an "ax murderer": What if, sometime between the primary and the convention, it became known that the candidate who had won the primary was in fact an ax murderer? Would the delegates still be bound to support the ax murderer? I used that example so many times that Bob Torricelli, who later became a congressman and a senator but was then the executive director of the Rules Committee, got so frustrated that one day he flat-out said that the president of the United States was not an ax murderer.

This was as close as we got to success.

In a show of loyalty, Carter's delegates overwhelmingly supported their right not to vote their consciences, choosing to bind themselves instead in a show of support for their candidate. The campaign finally ended with that vote Monday night on the Rule.

Two years later, the Democrats, acting on a report from a commission chaired by then-North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, changed the rules. I served on the drafting committee for that commission, and the big issue was not Rule 11(h)/f(3)(c), which everyone was happy to get rid of, but the proposal to add a category of unpledged superdelegates to the convention.

Undemocratic? For sure. Did it represent a lack of confidence in the will of the people, as represented by voters in the caucuses and primaries? Absolutely. Did we understand this at the time? You bet. I wrote almost as many speeches opposing superdelegates as I had opposing the robot rule.

But the view in 1982 was that the grassroots types who came out every four years could not be trusted to pick winners. It was as simple as that. Too much democracy, too many liberals controlling the process, and too many defeats in November. Changing the rules was all about the desire to win, the thought being that the grownups, the establishment or the "white boys" (and they were called all those things) would be more in tune with electoral success in November than the wackos who voted in Democratic primaries and caucuses.

Last weekend, with his endorsement of Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson argued that superdelegates should not deny the will of the people. But he's denying the will of the people of his home state of New Mexico, as Ted Kennedy is the overwhelming will of the people of Massachusetts, even though Richardson will be a New Mexico delegate at the convention and Kennedy will be a Massachusetts delegate. In both cases, the elected official will be voting for Obama, despite Clinton's win in those states.

They have every right to do so. Superdelegates are not robots. Neither, for that matter, are delegates anymore. It may not be democratic, but it is certainly consistent with the rules of the Democratic Party, and with the purpose of those rules.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



6 Comments | Post Comment
Susan, please retract your statement from this article. You state: "Last weekend, with his endorsement of Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson argued that superdelegates should not deny the will of the people. But he's denying the will of the people of his home state of New Mexico, as Ted Kennedy is the will of the people of Massachusetts, even though Richardson will be a New Mexico delegate at the convention and Kennedy will be a Massachusetts delegate. In both cases, the elected official will be voting for Obama, while their states overwhelmingly supported Clinton."
In fact, Clinton won New Mexico by 1% of the vote; less than 2000 votes. She wasn't declared the winner of New Mexico for days with the vote being so close. You state that New Mexico "overwhelmingly supported Clinton."
Will somebody else please put pressure on Susan to retract this statement. This is exactly the kind of statement expected from the Paul Begalas, James Carvilles, and Lanny Davis' of the world and it should be unacceptable in Susan's role as a Fox Political Analyst.
Classic move for one of the Clinton mouthpieces.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Jeff Edelman
Wed Mar 26, 2008 2:41 PM
Hi Susan

Your last sentence says it all. I have the same internal conflicts as there are external conflicts. "Democratic or democratic!!" Big D or little d!!! In this year, the big question is "Electability?" "Who can beat the Republicans?"
Comment: #2
Posted by: robert j therriault
Thu Mar 27, 2008 4:50 AM
Ms. Estrich,

I read your column regularly. One of the reasons I look forward to your columns is that I believe you tell the truth as you see it, i.e., you don't play loose with the facts simply to support a thesis. In you most recent column, however ("The Robot Rule"), you write that Hillary Clinton won both Massachusetts and NM "overwhelmingly." Hillary Clinton did not win NM overwhelmingly--it was very close. She received only one more delegate than did Obama. I think you are aware of this and that you purposely overstated the facts. In my view, this renders you no more valid than any other columnist who bends the truth for the sake of expediency--it's unprofessional and sloppy.
Comment: #3
Posted by: chris mayo
Thu Mar 27, 2008 5:33 AM
I have a lot of respect for you. I sense you support Hillary Clinton for President and that is your perogative. Although I am a fervent Obama supporter, I would have supported Clinton in the fall had she not stuped to the level of saying John McCain, the REPUBLICAN, is more qualified to be President then Obama. That was the last straw. I will leave the President vote blank if Hillary is the nominee.
With that said, you are totally correct regarding the superdelgates, or for that matter "elected" delegates. They can vote for whoever they please at the convention on the first ballot or any successive ballot.
You and I both know it's extremely unlikely an elected delegate will abandon the candidate they were elected to support. These people are elected based on their strong support for their candidate.
Superdelegates is another matter. They could go either way.
To be sure, no superdelegate is obligated to support the candidate with the most elected delegates (whether we are talking national total, state total or CD total). But I would argue that unless it can be CLEARLY demonstrated that Hillary Clinton would have a significant better chance of defeating John McCain then Barack Obama it would not be an act of good faith to negate the majority vote of Democratic primary voters just because Clinton may have a bit more pull in the Democratic party establishment.
I would also argue with the passion Barack Obama has engendered both in the African American community, a usually stable Democratic Party voting bloc and the enthusiasm he has garnered with so many NEW young voters, it would be political suicide for the party to say "We don't care. We owe the Clintons political chits and we are going to pay them".
No, show me polls where Hillary is polling 5%+ better in a large number of key states against John McCain then Obama and show me that is a consistent pattern over a number of weeks, and I would be less upset if superdelegates decide to give her the nomination.
Short of that, it would be equivalent to a smoke-filled back room deal and we can all plan to watch the inauguration of John McCain on Jnauary 20, 2009. (And Hillary Clinton's retirement from the US Senate in 2013, after it is apparent she cannot be elected as dog catcher for destroying the Democratic Party's one sure chance in 2008).
Comment: #4
Posted by: Steve
Thu Mar 27, 2008 10:21 AM
Robert Johnson, Steve Ratner, et al., were most appropriate in having written a directive to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, on behalf of the Super Delegates not being "Robot Delegates". Why give hundreds of thousands of dollars to a party that is attempting to railroad a viable Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate.

Anyone who is the least bit grounded during this particular election year, would not have jumped out front in anticipation of the end of this particular horse race. There are still too many day-to-day variables or unpredictibles in the air, and I feel as an Independent that Senator Clinton has every right to press through all the remaining State Primaries/Caucuses to enable every voter's (those who choose to exercise their right to vote) voice being heard through the casting of their individual vote. What has occurred regarding the Florida and Michigan votes and delegates is a disgrace to The Democratic Party after what happened to Vice President Gore in the 2000 Election.

All Democrats should feel appalled by the slippery tongues of both Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi when they've been interviewed by the bias 24/7 cable news pundits and (both) in their own subtle way have attempted to sway this year's campaign election and to push Senator Clinton out of the race....shame on The Democratic Party.
Comment: #5
Posted by: KV
Fri Mar 28, 2008 1:40 PM
I agree with you 100% ( or maybe 95%). Anyway, thanks for the information and the analysis, not that it appears at the moment as though it will make a difference. 'THE Dem Party' is absolutely petrified of even the idea of going to the convention. Damned if it would and damned if it doesn't. Anyway, I hope Hillary wins big in PA.
Comment: #6
Posted by: John B
Sun Mar 30, 2008 7:11 PM
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