I played my part in democracy yesterday, attending the UK Democratic caucus in London.
Apparently the largest number ever to attend a caucus in the past was around 80. Anticipating greater interest this year, Democrats Abroad had booked a room that could hold 200. Two weeks ago they upped that to 350. Last night, 625 people showed up to vote.
“Don’t thank me,” said one of the organisers, responding to a caucuser’s congratulations for the organisation. “Thank the man who brought us all here — George W Bush.”
The excitement of participants at the Bush-out energy was only exceeded by the news that the London turnout had topped the total in Paris over the weekend. Some rivalries supersede all other considerations.
The UK caucus was to determine the UK delegates to the Democrats Abroad international caucus, which will be held in Edinburgh at the end of March. As one of the biggest chapters of Democrats Abroad, the UK sends 30 delegates with one-third vote each to the international caucus. The 40 countries at the international caucus will then choose 19 people to go to the Democratic National Convention in Boston (the 19 people have a grand total of 7 votes).
I’ve never caucused before. I think Philip Gourevitch, writing in The New Yorker about the Iowa caucus, had it right. If election observers watched a caucus in a so-called emerging democracy, they would decry its failure to observe basic democratic norms. Forget the right to a secret ballot. Forget the right to your unimpeded choice.
Here’s how a caucus works. The convener, in our case Rachelle Jailer Valladares, the chair of Democrats Abroad, first determines how many voters there are. That in turn produces a “viability number”, which is 15% of the total. Since we had 625 voters (you had to show your passport and sign a form declaring you supported the aims of the Democratic party), the viability number was 93.75.
Each of the candidates then made a brief statement. We obviously didn’t have any real candidates, and the overflow capacity meant that Rachelle decided the video messages from Dean and Clark would not be shown, since quite a few people wouldn’t be able to see them. The Clark supporters were particularly upset by this decision, and it seemed to take the wind completely out of their sails.
In place of video messages, official letters from the candidates were read out in alphabetical order of the candidates. Clark’s was extraordinarily misjudged, it seemed to me. The entire message was about how he understood the concerns of overseas Americans, having spent much of his career overseas. So it droned on about voting rights and taxation. Not one word about why he’d be an effective candidate or president.
Dean’s letter was a minor variation on his stump speech. He stressed his qualifications as a leader and his role as a Washington outsider. I thought the tone was about right.
In support of Edwards we had a personal statement from the official worldwide representative of the Edwards campaign. She made a strong speech about his qualities. It seems as though she could speak personally because of her official designation (the whole evening was cloaked in rules and bureaucracy). No other kosher worldwide representatives were in London last night (to laughter, it was announced that the Clark representative was in Antarctica).
When it came to Kerry’s turn, a young woman started to make her personal plea. Rachelle stopped her. The Kerryite huffed, “Okay, so I won’t read the speech I’ve just spent an hour on. And I won’t be able to tell you why my cousin John Kerry will make such a great candidate.” I almost gagged. The official Kerry letter, in contrast, was quite good.
Kucinich and Sharpton had not sent proper statements. Instead, for bureaucratic reasons, their filing letter with Democrats Abroad was read in full. Sharpton’s was brief and to the point. Kucinich’s was a strange declaration of his support for affirmative action in selection of delegates. It contained six paragraphs all reiterating his support for women, African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, transgendered persons and people with disabilities. Repeated over and over and over.
Finally, finally, we were able to split into our candidate preferences. Rachelle warned us, “If you talk to the media during the preference, you are disqualified.” Oy! As a person who saw me taking notes said, “Does that mean I have to stop talking to you?” I replied, “Every person here could be the media now.” What extraordinary old thinking, not least in the year when the Internet has so dramatically affected the Democrats’ campaigns.
Kerry was assigned the main room, Dean supporters were invited to go to the room next door, Edwards out in the hall, Clark in another room, and so on. After a period of friendly jostling, we found our places. The Dean room looked crowded, but not packed. With a Clark supporter monitoring the count (a Dean supporter had gone to monitor the Clark count) each of us was tallied. We hit 97, just a few beyond the viability number of 93.75. Phew!
Only two candidates were announced as viable: Dean and Kerry, who totalled 262. I guess not everyone reacted to the cousin like me. People I know who had been involved with the Dean campaign since the autumn were surprised at Clark’s poor showing, since they were reckoned to have the best organisation in London.
We then went through a 10 minute period of confused jockeying for the now-uncommitted supporters. In Iowa, where I guess many people know the other people in the caucus room, this might be an intense, meaningful moment. But in London, where hardly any of us knew anybody else, it was a bit of a farce. Two Kucinich supporters came over to Dean, telling me, “We wanted to make the smallest possible move to the right.” They only had one regret, however, “Kerry has better air conditioning,” they confessed. And it was true. Having granted the Kerry crowd the main hall, the rest of us were condemned to low-ceilinged, sweaty, overcrowded spaces. Clearly rigged.
But then more confusion. The Edwards supporters claimed that the viability number was wrong, since some people had left after the initial count, but before the preference. Slightly dodgily, I thought, a new viability number was agreed and after several counts, Edwards was declared viable as well.
Rachelle declared that the 30 UK delegates would be split 17 for Kerry, seven for Dean, six for Edwards.
We retired back to the Dean supporters room to choose our seven. Ten people were interested in going to Edinburgh. Each of them made a few remarks to explain why they should be chosen. We were then asked to pick our seven.
But bureaucratic rules intervened. It seems the rules of the international caucus requires gender balance in all delegations. So even at our micro level, the delegates had to be gender balanced. Only three of the ten were male — so they were in effect guaranteed selection. Only four of the seven women could be picked. My own personal choice was for five women and two men. “It’s almost bad enough to make me a Republican,” I said to another Dean supporter bewildered by the gender rule. Just joking, of course.
This UK diversion aside, I reckon the nomination is very likely to go to Kerry, with Edwards perhaps still having an outside chance. So why did I continue to support Dean last night?
I saw my preference last night as a tribute to the campaign that — as much as anger at Bush — brought over 600 people to the caucus. I think the Democratic campaign we are seeing has largely been scripted by Dean, even though his moment has now passed. Of the candidates with a chance, Dean alone tore into president Bush throughout last year. He enabled the Democratic party to rediscover its voice (USA Today has a good piece on this theme). He convinced people that Bush can be defeated in November. And that’s what everyone who turned up last night wants.