Monday, November 08, 2004

Direct Primaries and the Ends Of Good Government

A distressed liberal writes in a recent column that direct primaries are not working.

Direct primaries were “a dud” the columnist declared and added, “For years, we good-government types had banged the drum for election reform. Oh, how we thundered and roared. Outlaw the practice of candidates being chosen in smoke-filled back rooms, we pleaded. Drive a stake through the hearts of party bosses. Put an end to the humiliating and costly system of forcing contenders to beg for delegate support. Dismantle the incumbency-protection system. Reinvigorate our democratic institutions by allowing candidates to circumvent rigged conventions and petition directly onto the primary ballot.

“So what was the result?

“Of Connecticut's 187 legislative and five congressional districts, a grand total of one person petitioned onto the ballot: Republican Raymond Collins III of West Haven, who was seeking the House seat being vacated by his father. “

All this is very sad, but predictable. Has ever an elephant brought forth such an inconsequential mouse?

Could the reforms liberals mothered over the past few decades have anything to do with this sad state of affairs?

The smoke filled rooms have been emptied of vampires for a half century. The last time a nominating convention chose a presidential candidate was in 1952. Republican Dwight Eisenhower won on the first ballot and Democrat Adlai Stevenson won on the third. Not only did primaries remove the suspense involved in choosing candidates for office; they were the stake in the hearts of party bosses.

The last useless remnants of the old party system have been dismantled by the McCain/Feingold campaign reform bill, a measure that effectively prevents money passing freely through the party system. Some critics of the bill have argued that it is a body blow to the First Amendment, since the legislation prevents the airing of political ads – Free speech anyone? – a few weeks before election balloting. And yet McCain/Feingold’s direct assault on the hallowed First Amendment has ruffled few liberal feathers.

Primaries have moved decision making from the two major parties to any group not formally connected with them that is interested enough in backing fringe candidates, and McCain Feingold moves election financing from parties to deep pocket millionaires like George Soros and propagandistic film makers that nurse grudges against presidents who behave like Teddy Roosevelt.

When direct participation in party politics means nothing, few will participate in party politics. In some respects, financing and political decision were better left in the hands of party bosses who chose candidates in smoke filled rooms. Their choices imposed a certain level of restraint in campaigns and were more intelligent, practical and civil than those made by unaffiliated interest groups.

Campaign reforms that “good government” liberals have championed over the past few decades did not, could not, and never will end the stranglehold incumbents enjoy. In the following decade, we shall see that McCain Feingold has not substantially changed the percentage of incumbents returned to office, a figure now hovering at an obscene 98 percent. So far, the McCain/Feingold reforms, buttressed by mischievous court decisions, have gagged party professionals and awarded to independent political groups rights and privileges that used to be deployed first by party bosses and then by the nominal heads of parties – usually presidents and governors.

Term limits – which, for some odd reason, never were embraced warmly by liberals – would radically change the incumbency landscape and, as an additional benefit, provide experienced candidates for other offices. A term limit in place several years ago might have thrown Sen. Chris Dodd into the gubernatorial mix. State contractors and employees then might have had an opportunity to provide amenities to a Democratic governor more practiced than John Rowland in the etiquette of giving and taking gifts.

If term limits are not one of the arrows found in liberal quivers, especially here in Connecticut, it may be because the average liberal is not concerned with “good government.” Why should liberals, any more than conservatives, be concerned with wresting political control of party affairs from incumbents who belong to the same ideological church they regularly attend?

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