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A Leadership Opportunity for Obama


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addresses people during a Town Hall meeting at B'nai Torah Congregation May 22, 2008 in Boca Raton, Fla. (Getty Images)

By Dan Balz
The upcoming meeting of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee over what to do about Michigan and Florida offers Barack Obama a unique opportunity. The question is whether he will seize it.

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist steeped in the history of past nominating battles, described the May 31 meeting this way. "The committee meeting will be the first test of whether the party can come together," he said. "If these two campaigns can talk together, they should be able to reach agreement with one another."

Obama and Hillary Clinton agree that both the Michigan and Florida delegations, currently barred from attending the convention because they moved up their primaries in violation of party rules, should be seated. But they are far apart in their initial negotiating positions about how many votes the states should have and how those delegates are allocated.

Devine believes the onus is on Obama to help produce the solution. "As the putative nominee, it's incumbent on him to take the lead and try to put it together," he said. Later, he added this: "If Obama stood up and brokered this, he would demonstrate the kind of skills he's talked about asserting as president. ... He needs to step up, he needs to solve this, and when it's solved he will be the beneficiary of it. [Obama advisers] need to believe that."

At this point, according to officials in both campaigns, there are no direct talks over Michigan and Florida. Both campaigns are talking to DNC officials and the co-chairs of the Rules and Bylaws Committee -- Alexis Herman and James Roosevelt Jr. -- are surveying committee members to gauge whether there is any consensus emerging.

The Clinton campaign has staked out a tough position, what's described as the "100 percent, 100 percent" solution. Clinton wants the full delegations from both states seated, with full voting rights, and the pledged delegates allocated on the basis of last winter's primary results.

That means in Michigan awarding no delegates to Obama because he took his name off the ballot. The non-Clinton delegates would officially be considered uncommitted. Clinton's campaign has calculated that, if that solution prevails, she will net 111 delegates, although most of the uncommitted delegates likely would end up supporting Obama.

Clinton appears to have miscalculated this week. Since the Oregon and Kentucky primaries, she has ratcheted up her rhetoric, linking Michigan and Florida to the disputed election in Zimbabwe, slavery and the Constitution. Knowledgeable Democrats say such talk has played badly with the very people Clinton needs most right now, superdelegates and members of the rules committee.

The Clinton campaign's proposal has almost no prospect of prevailing. Having sanctioned Florida and Michigan earlier, the committee members appear unwilling to approve a solution that could be seen as now letting the states off without some punishment.

Roosevelt said one of the principles of any likely resolution is that "the rules have to be honored, not only because they have the force of law, but also because if they are not honored we will have primaries in 2011 and total chaos in 2012."

Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman and a current member of the rules committee, offered a similar assessment. "As much as I disagree with what the Rules and Bylaws Committee did -- at least the harshness and timing -- even I would assert that there has to be some kind of retribution, some kind of sanction," he said.

Fowler's views hold weight not just because of his past role as party chairman but also because he has endorsed Clinton for president and is sympathetic to her position. As he put it, "I would be inclined to support what the campaign wanted, but there are limitations."

Obama campaign officials have said they are willing to compromise. Chief strategist David Axelrod told National Public Radio the Obama campaign is "willing to go more than halfway" and give up more delegates than the rules might otherwise dictate. "The question is, is Senator Clinton's campaign willing to do the same?"

But so far the most the campaign has done is embrace a proposal from Michigan Democratic leaders that is more generous to Clinton that the Obama campaign's initial proposal to award each candidate half the delegates, but less generous that would be the case of the primary results dictated the allocation.

Throughout the long dispute over Michigan and Florida, Obama and his advisers have demonstrated their willingness to play hardball politics. When there was growing pressure to conduct a new election in Michigan, the Obama campaign held firm in its resistance. Eventually legislation for a makeover primary collapsed, dealing another blow to Clinton's hopes of winning the nomination.

Now the Obama campaign is just as resistant to a compromise in Michigan that would not directly award him any delegates. And because his team believes Clinton's standing is rapidly being eroded by her rhetoric, they seem to have less incentive to move in her direction.

But this is more than a test of wills in the final hours of the long nomination fight. Obama already is looking to the general election. A smooth convention and relatively harmonious relations with the Clintons and their campaign are clearly in his interest.

Obama's core message is the politics of change and the politics of unity, not a continuation of the hard-line tactics that Republicans and Democrats have embraced in Washington. Practical politics dictate that he help find a solution that also does nothing to diminish the Democrats' chances of carrying either of the two states.

For Obama, all that points in the direction of being in the forefront of finding a solution, not being a bystander who, in the end, simply accepts what the committee decides. Although he is not yet the Democratic nominee, he could enhance his position as the putative leader of the party by starting to act like it in this fight.

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 23, 2008; 2:34 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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