Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Reform Primary Debate Format

Primaries are intra-party struggles. They answer the question: Who will represent Republicans and Democrats in the general election?

In the past, questions of this kind used to be determined by party bosses in smoke filled back rooms. A John Bailey, the last Democrat Party boss here in Connecticut, used to gather together party regulars and decide, for instance, that everyone would back John F. Kennedy for president and Abe Ribicoff for governor. Applying a little pressure and buying off the more principled of the pols with a local project certain to gain them votes, all would emerge from the meeting in amicable agreement, and a party convention would put the gentlemen on the ticket. Everyone had a cigar, a shot of Jim Beam, and yet another putatively successful campaign was launched.

This arrangement did not prove satisfactory to reformers. A concerted assault on the smoke filled back rooms ensued, after which primaries were instituted. Someone stuffed Bailey, put him in a political museum along with party conventions, and the age of primaries was launched with great fanfare.

This was both good and bad. We’ve just seen the bad part in the most recent Democrat primary debate. Clinton, stung in the past by charges of hypocrisy, sought to weave her way through positions generally identified with the progressive wing of her party, with predictable results. She was chastised by Dodd, among others, for having both said and unsaid that she favored Mayor of New York Elliot Spitzer’s plan to allow illegal immigrants the “privilege,” Dodd’s formulation, of driving cars in New York.

It was awkward. Many people felt the debate would have been far more instructive and enlightening had the debaters been Dodd and Giuliani or Hillary and some Republican worthy?

That sort of cross party debate would have been significantly different, more like a debate in the general election, more informative, keyed more to the general electorate, less absurd. That’s right – less absurd. Chatter designed to appeal to minor actors standing in the wings of the parties waiting to take over the political play is bound to be absurd.

It can be reasonably argued that U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd’s whole campaign thus far is hopelessly skewered; he appears to be running for president of DailyKos and Moveon.org.

Dodd’s message, such as it is, is directed to progressive party activists.

Now, the chance of Dodd being chosen as the Democrat nominee for president in the national convention is pretty remote. Dodd polls well at progressive blog sites such as DailyKos, around 23%; but in national polls, he is hovering, as one conservative blogger put it “somewhere in between the guy who fills the soda vending machine at the US Capitol and Eleanor Roosevelt’s bones.”

It’s time to think seriously about changing debate formats in primary campaigns.

Newt Gingrich, the idea man of the Republican Party, has suggested canning Democrat on Democrat and Republican on Republican debates during primaries and replacing them with cross party debates, pairing up Dodd and other Democrats with Republican presidential primary candidates.

The change would reshape primary campaigns, because primary messages would be addressed not to extremist in the wings of both parties but to real primary voters. And since the message would be more carefully modulated, partisan politicians need not throw themselves off ideological cliffs in pursuit of the good will of party activists who are rarely satisfied by the heroic self immolation of their heroes.

Dodd, facing Giuliani in a primary debate, would not be pitching his message to the ideologues of his party – and his pre-election vote totals, as a result, would be higher than the soda vending machine guy’s. And Hillary Clinton’s performance during the Democrat debate would have seemed more progressive and less centrist had she been debating George Romney rather than other Democrat presidential contenders who were intent on stepping to the left of Dodd.

Gingrich’s reform is a good idea whose time has come.

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