"Is Clinton going to make it easy, or is she going to make it hard?" That's how a longtime Democratic Hill staffer frames the dilemma that will face his party after Saturday's expected ruling on seating the delegates from Florida and Michigan. With the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee set to determine the fate of these rule-breaking states, Hillary Clinton and her campaign have demanded that all of the 368 delegates be seated. The bedrock democratic principle that all votes should be counted is at stake, they have argued. To do anything less risks provoking a November backlash against Democrats in both states.
If the RBC—as it's now the fashion to call it in heated bar conversations—seats all the delegates, Clinton would be 55 delegates closer to Obama, whom she currently trails by 200 delegates. That ruling would also legitimize the popular vote in the two states and thereby Clinton's claim that more people have voted for her than for her opponent.
It would also prove the existence of unicorns. Which is to say that this fantasy outcome, in which Clinton gets everything she wants, is highly unlikely for a number of reasons: Committee rules may not allow the full seating; counting delegates and votes from Michigan would be unfair to Obama, who was not on the ballot in the state; and to seat all delegates would virtually erase the sanctions that were put in place to keep states from jumping ahead in the established order of primaries. There's another bedrock principle at stake here: The rules are the rules.
So, what does Clinton do if the RBC doesn't seat all the delegates? Her campaign advisers won't say, but she has two options. She and her advisers can express disappointment but essentially accept the outcome, continuing to press her case to superdelegates that she's the better general-election candidate while stowing the incendiary rhetoric about how Florida and Michigan are akin to Zimbabwe. That would be the easy road.
Or Clinton could take the hard road. She and her aides could double down on the fight, taking her cause all the way to the convention and framing it not as a crusade for Clinton's self-interest but as an effort to protect those bedrock American principles that every vote should count.
This option is so explosive because it suggests that without every single Florida and Michigan delegate, Obama's nomination will be counterfeit. This is the ticket to giving Clinton supporters a reason to stay home in November. These are people who are already angry that she has not been treated fairly because she is a woman. Add to that the destruction of the founding ideals of the party, and the arms really start waving. WomenCountPAC has taken out ads in USA Today and the New York Times calling on women to rally on the sidewalk outside the hotel where the Rules and Bylaws Committee will deliberate Saturday.
Fortunately for Obama, not many people see a bloody and protracted fight. Clinton and her team are making their strongest case now—in the most patriotic and stirring language they can muster—as a negotiating position. It does not necessarily follow that they'll continue sounding the high note of grievance after they lose on Saturday.
Even if they tried to mount a new crusade founded on fairness, they might be robbed of the chance. Thirteen of the 30 RBC members support Clinton, and one of them might nevertheless vote for an agreement that doesn't count all the delegates. The members of the RBC are not the most extreme Clinton partisans. They are Democratic loyalists and will be weighing the potential damage to the party that might result from giving Clinton the full slate of delegates. If one of them votes against her position, it would be hard for Clinton to then turn around and claim a subversion of the fundamental principles of democracy.
The superdelegates might also keep Clinton from shredding Obama. The widely accepted view among Democrats is that after the South Dakota and Montana primaries on June 3, a host of superdelegates will rush to Obama, giving him the nomination. Those who have been sitting on the fence will say that all the contests are over and they can finally announce their choice. Obama staff and advisers of the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate are all predicting this outcome.
Party elders may also crash the fairness party. In recent days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have signaled that they are going to play a bigger role. They have been working behind the scenes to get superdelegates to wind it up after June 3. Reid and Pelosi, as well as party Chairman Howard Dean, could bless the outcome of a committee ruling that doesn't fully satisfy Clinton as a fair one, seriously watering down any Clinton protest. Then it will be up to Obama to work on appeasing Clinton's most ardent fans. It's the big question facing his campaign, and one he can answer only when his opponent is finally out of the way.