The Robot Rule

By Susan Estrich

March 26, 2020 5 min read

What if?

The novel coronavirus' fatality rate is highest in men over 70. All three men left in this presidential race are over 70. I am certainly not the only one who has thought about this.

Parties, not states or the federal government, control the nominating process. I know the Democratic rules; for better and for worse, I wrote some of them.

So what if a nominee, say, Joe Biden, gets infected after the Democratic National Convention? While the convention is technically the governing body of the Democratic Party, the party doesn't hold a new one when situations change.

The Democratic National Committee then meets and decides.

The DNC. When I told people I worked there, people would look at me strangely thinking it had something to do with a gynecological procedure. When I was a member, I got invited to all kinds of fun things and met great friends. How did I get there? Did it matter that my dear friends were running the governor's political operation? Might that also have something to do with my chairmanship of the Ballot Law Commission? Many of my old pals are still members.

The DNC is equally divided between men and women. It is diverse and inclusive. It is not exactly independent — if, by that, you mean that members decide everything like an outside director. Not a bit.

Governors have way more power than senators because they run the home-state operation. There are definitely money people, lots of union people, longtime party stalwarts. Last time I checked, this was not Bernie Sanders' crowd. Independent is another matter.

If the DNC picks — if it's after the convention — you'll be crazy not to put your money on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

BUT what if ...

Biden gets sick before the convention? He wants to withdraw? He does withdraw? He doesn't withdraw? Does Bernie get all his delegates? Does he get to decide who is voted for?

Some of the more recent histories of the Democratic Party quote the longtime party rule that pledged delegates are pledged, but they are not bound. They may have gotten there because of Biden or Sanders or anyone else, but that doesn't mean they're bound to vote for who they pledged to, or for a candidate they endorse. This is not the longtime rule.

Back in 1980, the reelection campaign of President Jimmy Carter, obviously afraid of the risks ahead, inserted a paragraph in the call to the convention and the party rules, rule F(3)(c), that for the first time, purported to "bind" them to vote for the candidate whose votes got them there.

We called it the Robot Rule. We had pins that depicted a robot with a red slash across it. It became the central fight of the convention. It became the raison d'etre then-Sen. Ted Kennedy did not withdraw from the race and instead traveled around the country all summer before the convention "briefing" our enthusiastic delegates about the fights ahead, saying that Carter was trying to force the convention to vote for him rather than win their support.

We wanted a real vote. What was Carter afraid of?

To this day, I don't know. His campaign must have known what we did: that delegates who pass the scrutiny of the candidate's campaign, as they must, are as committed as the pig in the ham and egg breakfast. All a delegate had to do if she wanted to vote for Kennedy instead of Carter was vote with us on the rule. Hours of debate on prime time. Do you want to guess how many Carter delegates voted with Kennedy? Two. When a commission was formed after that loss, we got rid of the robot rule. I can't think of a single instance in which it mattered.

There won't be a brokered convention. That is too big of a risk. One lesson we learned too well is that if you have a "bad" convention — if you can't control your message and all you do is fight — you pay for it in the general election. But there will also certainly be plenty of brokering before we get there. Or at least plenty of trying. The back room may not be smoky, and we women have earned our seats, but it's still a back room.

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

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