We Don't Need No Stinking Rules!

The never-ending saga that is the 2008 Democratic presidential primary has proven to not only be tremendously entertaining, but remarkably educational as well. And it has revealed several truths that have been denied or overlooked for far, far too long.

And one of them is one of the core principles of the modern Democratic party: they have no core principles.

OK, that’s a bit flippant and a bit harsh, but it’s not that far from the truth. The lesson I have taken away from the Democrats’ behavior is that “we don’t believe in rules the instant they become inconvenient.”

Let’s look at the facts:

When the primary season was being planned out, the Democratic National Committee set a schedule and informed the state parties that if they tried to jump ahead, they would be punished — with penalties up to and including the refusal to seat any of their delegates. They also got the leading candidates to agree to not campaign in any “illegal” primaries.

Well, Barack Obama agreed, and even took his name off one ballot. Hillary Clinton also agreed, but left her name on the ballot and made a “fund-raising” trip to Florida — but it was NOT a “campaign” visit (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) — just before they voted.

Now, though, those delegates want to be seated. And Hillary Clinton, who is the beneficiary of winning two races where Obama didn’t compete (and one he didn’t even enter), is calling it a major issue of democracy and fairness and she ought to get those delegates — or, at least, most of them.

And, by god, they probably will be seated. At least, a good chunk of them. The rules just arent’ that important.

Personally, I always thought that the time to argue about the rules was before the contest started. It seems to me that when you enter into a contest, you are tacitly agreeing to the rules of that contest. To argue at the end of the contest, when you are losing, that the rules are unfair is pretty much the definition of whining.

I don’t care much for Senator Obama’s positions and history, but the fact is clear: he looked at the rules before he ran, and he won (well, technically, “is winning”) by playing by those rules. So he should claim the prize.

And then there’s the issue of Puerto Rico. They are having their primary tomorrow, and this is very exciting. People there are American citizens, but they don’t get to vote for president. This is bringing up the whole question of Puerto Rico’s legal status vis-a-vis the United States — and is bringing up the usual hand-wringing and whining (here’s a good example) about how unfair the whole thing is.

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It is not a state, so it does not have many of the rights and privileges of statehood. Among them is voting for president.

On the other hand, Puerto Rico is also exempt from a lot of taxes and other regulations. So it’s not entirely a bad deal.

More to the point, Puerto Rico’s status is something that is revisited on a fairly regular basis. Every few years or so, there’s a referendum among the island’s residents on how they want their future to unfold: become a state, go independent, or remain a “territory.” And every time, the status quo is preserved.

Rules are important. They give life structure, let us see how things are supposed to be and let us work towards our goals with at least some reassurance that we can reach them. Knowing the rules helps us figure out how we can get what we want, where we want to be, or decide that some things are unobtainable and readjust our aims. It also gives us assurance that others are supposed to follow the same rules, and won’t likely have an unfair advantage over us, and that there are penalties for breaking those rules.

Also, knowing the rules also gives us the ability to decide when we want to break those rules, and what we can expect for logical consequences.

Every day, I break rules. I speed. I violate rules of spelling and grammar. I ignore social mores and customs. And in most of those cases, those are deliberate choices, in full knowledge of the likely result. If I speed, I accept that I might get pulled over and given a ticket. When I deliberately break rules of spelling and grammar, I know that I might be thought ignorant, but I might be better able to make my intended point. I like to think of it as either the “e.e. cummings” rule, or an expansion of Bob Dylan’s line about “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” A writing teacher once explained that cummings could get away with ignoring the rules because he knew them so well, and could choose to break them for his own style in secure knowledge that no one would think he was acting out of ignorance. And Dylan pointed out that if you want to get away with breaking the law if you were careful to not do it carelessly.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned through experience. It’s one the Democratic National Committee could stand to learn, too.

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  1. Dave June 1, 2008
  2. Jay Tea June 1, 2008
  3. epador June 1, 2008