Martin Frost: Democrats Heading Toward Convention Floor Fight Over Delegates' Credentials?

History can be an interesting teacher. It puts current events in context but it does not always guarantee the same result.

In recent weeks there has been a great furor in the Democratic Party over the question of whether or not to seat convention delegations from Florida and Michigan elected in violation of party rules and how to choose replacement delegates if the rules are enforced.

If this issue cannot be resolved by the candidates and the Democratic National Committee, we may see a credentials floor fight at the national convention late this summer.

It has happened before.

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, the insurgent candidate, won the Republican presidential nomination against the party establishment candidate, Sen. Robert A. Taft, as a result of a credentials floor fight at the Republican National Convention.

Eisenhower delegates from Georgia, Louisiana and Texas were seated rather than Taft delegates from those states. The bitter internal battle did not prevent Eisenhower from winning the 1952 general election.

A strong case can be made, however, that times have changed in the past 56 years and that a divisive floor fight at this year’s Democratic National Convention could severely harm the ultimate Democratic nominee.

Why is 2008 different than 1952?

First, the 1952 conventions were the first ones fully covered by electronic media and not all credentials proceedings, the way the party officially approves and seats delegates to the convention, were televised. And, of course, 24-hour cable networks didn’t exist in 1952.

Second, like any contest in the Republican Party, this basically was a fight between two groups of whites, not a battle between the supporters of a black candidate and a white candidate. The wounds from this struggle could be much harder to heal in this year’s short general election campaign.

Third, there were almost no primaries in 1952. Virtually all the delegates were selected by the caucus method, which meant that far fewer people actually participated in the nominating process and it was easier for party insiders to influence the outcome of the challenges. Far fewer people were disenfranchised by a decision involving convention credentials.

So, how does the Democratic Party resolve these credentials fights prior to the convening of the National Convention in Denver? Clearly, there must be a resolution because refusing to seat any delegates from two large, competitive states like Michigan and Florida is not acceptable.

My personal choice remains for Michigan and Florida to have re-votes. If that is not possible, then party leaders must help resolve this matter prior to the convention.

What is called for is a solution that is fair to both candidates and to the party. A small meeting of respected top party leaders such as DNC Chairman Howard Dean, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and two key governors — one committed to Barack Obama (Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, for example) and one committed to Hillary Clinton (Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, for example) — could be convened to hammer out a compromise that then would be implemented by the DNC.

A perfect chair for this meeting would be former Sen. John Edwards, who has not endorsed either of the remaining candidates.

I am not going to suggest what that compromise should be. That’s up to the party leadership to determine; however, it must be somewhere in between seating all delegates elected in violation of party rules (favoring Clinton) and refusing to seat any delegates from these two states because they were elected in violation of party rules (favoring Obama).

It is unacceptable for everyone to stand idly by and pass the buck to the convention rules and credentials committees. Convention committees have majority and minority reports and the loser has the option to take his or her case to the full convention for a floor vote.

A no-holds-barred floor fight may have been acceptable to the Republicans in 1952 when much of the initial process was handled in closed, smoke-filled rooms. Repeating this history in 2008 is a recipe for disaster.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am uncommitted and will remain so throughout the process; however, I do want to win and I have no interest in seeing my party commit hari-kari.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.