05/22/2008 05:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moving Clinton's Goalposts, Again

Has anyone noticed the resemblance between George McGovern and Robert Mugabe? Sen. Hillary Clinton and her inventive mathematicians have. They see a parallel between the longtime dictator of Zimbabwe and the heroic former South Dakota senator, who won the 1972 presidential nomination while losing the popular vote in Democratic primaries.

The Clinton's campaign latest lurch into creative arithmetic currently awards her a popular-vote victory. This zigzag continues to ignore violation of party rules in Michigan and Florida and also requires speed-dial deletion of previous campaign statements deriding and devaluing the popular vote.

Now it requires comparing McGovern and Mugabe. "We're seeing that right now in Zimbabwe," the senator told a retirement community in Florida Wednesday. "Tragically, an election was held, the president lost and they refused to abide by the will of the people." This sounds like what happened in 1972, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and Hillary and her husband were working in McGovern's campaign.

Almost 16 million voters cast ballots in Democratic primaries that year. McGovern had won early primaries, but Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota won large victories among working-class Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania. When the primaries ended, Humphrey had 25.8 percent of the popular vote and McGovern 25.3 percent, a margin of fewer than 68,000 votes. (Alabama Gov. George Wallace finished third with 23.5 percent.)

The 1972 Democratic National Convention was all about rules because the previous convention, the tumultuous street riot in Chicago, vividly ignored the popular will. The convention chose Humphrey, even though in the 1968 primaries he and his surrogates amassed less than 30 percent. The combined vote of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, 69.3 percent, was ignored by delegates. It was the last time a Democrat could steal a nomination.

Rules, their revisions and their unintended consequences, have dominated the Democratic party ever since. Democrats have sought to be inclusive, awarding delegates proportionally, shunning the winner-take-all model of the Republican party. Had Democrats followed the GOP example, Clinton would have secured the nomination months ago after winning California and other large states.

Rules are rules, as even Harold Ickes, Clinton's rulemeister, would occasionally agree. Ickes has for 40 years been the wizard, scholar and poet laureate of Democratic party rules, usually on the insurgent side: for McCarthy in 1968 and Edward Kennedy in 1980. In August of 2007, he was one of 29 members of the Democratic National Committee's panel on rules and bylaws agreeing to ban delegates from Michigan and Florida, whose early primaries violated party rules. The vote was 29-1. The sole dissenter was a supporter of Barack Obama.

On Jan. 25, after Clinton lost in Iowa, her campaign announced that her name would go on the Michigan ballot. Without much explanation, that action suggests that rules are elastic and that rules are for others.

Democrats meet again on May 31 to re-consider rules and the Clinton team's latest rationale. The Clinton campaign's moving goalposts now qualify for frequent flier miles. They evoke what the charmingly acerbic director Billy Wilder said about Hollywood: "No matter how cynical I become, it's hard to keep up."