Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Return Of The Smoke Filled Back Room

Campaign reformists may have thought that they had saved democratic politics from the sweaty men in the smoke filled back rooms when primaries were instituted to clip their influence. But the smoke filled back room – minus the smoke, of course -- is back.

In pre-primary days, party tickets were fashioned by party delegates in state and national conventions, but the deciders were party bosses, usually state and national party chairmen allied with political shakers and movers.

Then came primaries, and the backroom boys gave way to new movers and shakers. Primaries were supposed to put party voters in the catbird seat.

Then came, open primaries, in which non-party members were permitted to shape the party ticket and campaign finance reform, followed by the general dissolution of political parties. The result of all this reforming may be seen most dramatically in the failed presidential campaign of Connecticut’s US Sen. Chris Dodd.

Dodd, who never garnered more than 2% of the vote in his bid for the presidency, returned to his home state with empty hands. His pockets, however, were not empty. Dodd raised $16 million for his feckless campaign, and at its terminus he still had considerable change jingling in his campaign coffers.

Dodd’s homecoming was celebrated on the pages of the Hartford Courant in a front page puff piece written by Jesse Hamilton, the paper’s Washington Bureau Chief, “Back On The Tracks.”

In the senate, and among his political homies, Dodd’s rep was undiminished by his embarrassing showing. Sen. Edwards Kennedy, the Northeast political fixture Dodd most closely approximates, said, “He ran for all the right reasons, to serve the nation in this time of urgent need, and he'll be an even better senator because of it. Campaigning across the country and meeting people from all different backgrounds only reinvigorates why you're in public service. The best is still yet to come from Chris in the Senate.”

His close friend Rep. John Larson, who inherited from former 1st District Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly a safe seat he could lose only if he is found in bed with a dead woman or a live man, said Dodd might be considered among the contenders for the vice presidency or some other post in the executive, assuming Democrats prevail, over Republicans in the coming general election. Dodd, Larson pointed out, has a stool in both camps: “He's more of a fit in the Obama camp, but he's highly regarded by the Clinton camp, also.”

A light begins to dawn, though it is still dusk at the Courant: Perhaps Dodd, that clever old fox, was running to make a point made more effectively by Barack Obama and Cindy Sheehan – get the troops home from Iraq right now, come what may.

Or perhaps he wanted to flex his money generating muscle. Despite hints in the Courant puff piece that Dodd fled the presidential field after Iowa because he didn’t want to end up on skid row, he used his position in the senate to finance his campaign and came out of the ordeal flush with money.

Dodd, in fact, is his own petite Political Party; so is his fellow Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost in a primary to liberal heart throb Ned Lamont but vanquished Lamont in a general election. And why not? Who needs political parties?

All of which brings us back to the empty smoke filled rooms, now repopulated with super delegates. This is the perfect end of campaign reform: We are brought back to the beginning. The super delegates, the good old boys (and gals) of the Democrat Party, have now become roving, unattached electors who are in a perfect position to trump decisions made in primaries.

So far, with miles to go before we sleep, the super delegates have received $890,000 from the Obama and Clinton camps. In the good old days of the smoke filled rooms, campaigns were bought with a wink and a nod.

Qui Bono? Long live campaign reform -sucker!
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