The Hillary Hold-ons: Causing Trouble in Denver and Beyond?

| Mon Aug. 25, 2008 12:23 PM EDT

Former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, was standing outside a Walgreen's on 16th Street in downtown Denver yesterday. It was a beautiful afternoon, and scores of his fellow Democrats who had arrived for their party's conventions were strolling up and down the 16th Street Mall, past high-end chain stores and restaurants. It felt like something of a block party. Ford, an African-American who lost a 2006 Senate bid after his foes ran an ad featuring a young white woman noting that Ford had attended a Playboy mansion party and asking him for a date, joyously greeted members of Congress, political operatives, and reporters who happened to pass by. But he did have a worry. A worry regarding Hillary Clinton. Not the Senator herself. But her die-hard supporters. Ford said that he feared that Clinton supporters who had come to Denver to demand Clinton receive the party's presidential nomination--and who were planning demonstrations and events during the week--could cause trouble.

Two blocks away, two of those Clinton supporters were hoping--and planning--exactly for that. Nancy Kirlen, a middle-aged woman from San Diego, and Kathy Skerl, also middle-aged and from Asheville, North Carolina, stood at the entrance to the Sheraton Hotel, where media credentials were being distributed, and enthusiastically told reporters of their intentions to derail the convention.

With Senator Barack Obama recognized by the vast majority of Democrats as the presumptive nominee, with Senator Joe Biden tapped as his running-mate, with no major debates under way about the party platform, the convention appears to be short on news, suspense and conflict. With the exception of one possible plot-line: the revenge of the Hillaryites. Reporters looking for a story have focused on the possible clash between this band of activists and the party.

Their goal--to get Clinton nominated by persuading superdelegates to ditch Obama for her--is certainly far-fetched. The question is, can they create enough sound and fury--amplified or not by the mainstream media--to make it appear that there is significant dissension within the ranks? Outside the Sheraton, Kirlen said she expected thousands of Hillary-backers to take to Denver's streets for a Tuesday march. Skerl lowered expectations, saying the crowd might number in the hundreds. In addition to the march, several other rallies for Hillary are planned before the roll call vote at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night.

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Kirlen and Skerl were quick to note that Clinton is not encouraging these efforts. "It's not about Hillary," Kirlen said. "It's about how she was treated by the press. The Democratic Party did not stand up for her." She also blasted the nominating process for having given caucuses, where Obama tended to do well, too much influence. She repeated the Clinton campaign's old arguments that Clinton won more votes overall than Obama (if you count the disputed contests in Florida and Michigan in a manner favorable to Clinton).

Both women were visibly angry. They spent months volunteering for Clinton, and they feel deeply wronged. But why can't they come to the same terms with the results as Hillary Clinton has? What does it say about their efforts that Clinton is not with them? Is that not disappointing to them--and a sign they shouldn't bother? No, they assert. "That says that she is a class act," comments Kirlen, "and wants to remain a force in the Democratic Party and get reelected to the Senate." It does not strike them as strange that they are standing up for a politician who won't stand with them. "She's playing nice," Kirlen adds. "But we don't have to." Both vowed to vote for John McCain over Obama in November. Kirlen cited McCain's experience and the number of women in senior positions in his campaign. Asked about his vote against Democratic-backed legislation that would undo a recent Supreme Court decision that makes it harder for a woman to sue an employer for pay discrimination, Kirlen changed the subject and criticized Democrats for having voted for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. This is not about policy issues.

The Hillary Hold-ons are mostly an outside-the-hall group. Bob Mulholland, a leader of the California delegation to the convention, said that among Democrats from the Golden State there are not many former Hillary backers who are upset enough to cause any difficulty. A senior member of the Maryland delegation noted that there are some "whiners and gripers" within that delegation but no signs they want to see any scuffling at the convention over Clinton. Harold Ford did note that the news that the Obama did not vet Clinton as a possible veep choice or speak to her about it "could fire up the fringe."

Delegates are party activists, and party activists tend to rally when called upon to rally. The bigger issue is whether the resentment shared by Kirlen and Skerl extends within the larger electorate. (A recent CNN poll showed that the percentage of Hillary Clinton voters who say they will vote for McCain in the fall has increased in recent weeks.) And if that resentment is hanging on and perhaps spreading, will any noise that is created in Denver by the Hillary Troublemakers, no matter how small their numbers, reverberate among women voters elsewhere? After all, it only takes a few loud dissenters to make a good media story. ("Fox News is giving us a lot of coverage," Kirlen noted.) So while Kirlen, Skerl, and their compatriots have about zero chance to alter the outcome in Denver, they may have to settle for the next best thing: keeping alive the narrative of the Hilllaryites for McCain.

Photo by flickr user Angela Radulescu used under a Creative Commons license.