February 15, 2008

John Lewis Begins March To Obama (Update: About Face?)

One of the most influential superdelegates in the Democratic Party has indicated he will likely vote for Barack Obama -- even though he endorsed Hillary Clinton four months ago. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia began his career marching for civil rights in Georgia, and now he says that he has to represent his Georgia constituents rather than his personal feelings at the convention. Note, however, some of the rationalizations he offers for his change of heart:

Representative John Lewis, an elder statesman from the civil rights era and one of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most prominent black supporters, said Thursday night that he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Senator Barack Obama in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention.

“In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit,” said Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who endorsed Mrs. Clinton last fall. “Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.”

Mr. Lewis, who carries great influence among other members of Congress, disclosed his decision in an interview in which he said that as a superdelegate he could “never, ever do anything to reverse the action” of the voters of his district, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

“I’ve been very impressed with the campaign of Senator Obama,” Mr. Lewis said. “He’s getting better and better every single day.”

I admire Lewis as one of the people who fought for the civil rights that should have been automatically afforded him as an American, at great personal risk to himself and his family. While I don't agree with him on much politically, he has earned a great deal of deserved respect. Still, one has to wonder why Lewis waited to consider endorsing Obama until a lot of other people decided that Obama could be a mainstream candidate first. Why endorse Clinton at all? Why not just wait and see, if that was Lewis' main concern?

Hillary has reason to worry now about her standing with other superdelegates, especially in the Congressional Black Caucus. Others who had pledged their support have begun to waver, and with Lewis apparently jumping ship or at least publicly considering it, they may well follow his lead. She will have to show some dramatic improvement at the polls to head off a parade of superdelegates opting out from her column and marching to Obama's.

All of this will completely undermine the superdelegate mechanism, of course, although this primary campaign probably sounded its death knell. None of them want to be seen as members of a star chamber that selects the nominee, but that's the position in which the DNC has put them. If the superdelegates wind up reiterating the popular vote of their constituencies, there's really no reason for them to exist at all. Their purpose was to be a safety valve to keep an unelectable candidate from grabbing the top spot on the ticket, but instead they've made it clear that the popular vote won't really make the decision when two equally popular candidates compete for the nomination.

Hillary will have to come into Denver within a few delegates of Obama to get the nod. And she still might do it. Wisconsin, Texas, and Ohio will be critical to determine the direction of the campaign. She could reverse the superdelegate exodus that appears ready to break with a few big wins.

UPDATE and Bump: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Lewis denies the NYT story:

A story in Friday New York Times that said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was going to back Barack Obama for president is inaccurate, a spokeswoman for the former civil rights leader told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this morning.

Lewis press secretary Brenda Jones did not elaborate and did not immediately respond to a message asking for clarification.

Were the quotes inaccurate? Because the Times didn't exactly claim that Lewis had already shifted his endorsement to Obama, but that he clearly stated he would cast his superdelegate vote in the manner of how his constituents voted. That's pretty clear, unless he really didn't say that. I suspect that he had an uncomfortable call from Team Hillary this morning.


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