Opinion » Ted Rall

Is Chicago Burning?

Hillary Clinton, superdelegates and playing with fire

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NEW YORK—Will there be race riots if Barack Obama is denied the Democratic nomination?

Despite the continuing fallout over his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Illinois senator has won the most state primaries, the most votes and the most delegates. Polls have him running between 1 and 4 percentage points ahead of Clinton. Four centuries after the first blacks came to America in chains, the prospect of seeing one of their own become president is so close that African-Americans can taste it. Will they sit quietly at home and change the channel if white America dashes their hopes?

"One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race," write Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico.com. "Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning."

But what if she does?

Stars, planets and a bunch of asteroids would have to fall into perfect alignment in order for Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. First, she'd need to win a landslide in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. That could happen; a March 23 Quinnipiac poll had her pulling ahead, 53 to 41. She'd need a repeat performance in Indiana. But she's running even with Obama there.

Never mind reality. What if she racks up a string of late-season primary wins?

Two arguments are at the center of the Clinton campaign's last-ditch attempt to seduce the 800 unpledged delegates who will determine the nominee at the Democratic convention. The first plays to the raison d'etre of the superdelegates, created in 1982 to steer the nomination away from a leading candidate in case he or she fumbles late in the nomination race, hurting the party's chances of beating the Republican nominee in November.

"[Hillary] has the best chance to defeat John McCain," Bill Clinton says. Why? Because she's vetted. All the dirt has been dug up on her; the GOP won't dredge up anything new. As for Obama, his friendships with Rev. Wright and a Chicago slumlord might represent the mere tip of a toxic Daley machine sludge pile.

Clinton's second argument is her novel promise to win the "primary popular vote," a phrase no one heard of before. Obama leads by 700,000 out of 26 million votes cast; Clinton says she'll close this gap in Pennsylvania.

"Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote—which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle—and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory," continues the Politico. "An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else."

The Democratic Party probably won't risk alienating its most reliable constituency. Probably.

But what if it does? Left-of-center insiders, mainstream Democrats and street activists alike are quietly worrying that things could turn ugly. 1968 ugly. Maybe even worse.

"If party insiders fix the nomination against the will of the people—when the entire election is about repudiation of the old politics—it will be an act of monumental political disaster that historians will condemn for generations," Brent Budowsky writes at TheHill.com. Hillary Clinton would have a tough time uniting the Democratic vote against McCain, still coasting on the fumes of his pre-Bush rep as a straight-shooting maverick.

There would certainly be street protests in Denver. "I will, without doubt, march at the convention if there is even a remote chance on the nomination being stolen," promises a typical poster at the liberal blog Daily Kos.

Blogger Al Giordano predicts: "It won't be the chaotic street protest and battle with the cops that occurred in '68: we've learned too much from that. It will be organized, Gandhian in its adherence to discipline and nonviolence, and more massive than anything maybe ever seen in the United States' long history of social movements. If the party leaders choose to destroy democracy by denying the fair-and-square winner the nomination, democracy will then be duty bound to destroy the party ... The big news is that, for the first time in decades, a black-white alliance from the street will be possible: Montgomery 1955 meets Seattle 1999 in Denver 2008."

Street protests + rage = ?

No one knows whether angry Obama supporters would turn violent if their man is denied the Democratic nomination. But precedents count. The last time American progressives got worked up about anything was the invasion of Iraq. They marched by the millions. They kept things "Gandhian." But nonviolence failed: The media ignored them. And the war dragged on—longer, so far, than World War II.

More recently, on the international front, activists can't ignore events in Tibet, where the passage of time has merely accelerated the oppression of the indigenous population at the hands of Chinese occupation troops. Ultimately, young Tibetans are finding violent resistance to be more effective—and more attractive to television cameras—than the Dalai Lama's corporate-approved militant pacifism. If they keep Chinese cities burning through the summer Olympics, Tibetans could win their independence this year.

As they mull how to vote in the weeks ahead, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic superdelegates she's wooing might want to ask themselves: How much would the United State miss a few cities?

Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.