Monday, August 02, 2010

A Preview Of A Post-Primary Gubernatorial Campaign

Primaries are coming to a close in less than a week. It can’t happen soon enough.

Primaries are a distortion medium. People will have noticed that while general elections are matter, primaries are anti-matter. A Democratic politician blown to the left in a primary has only a few months before the general election to make his way to the right, and the same drama occurs among Republicans, though the motion is in the opposite direction. It is said on these occasions that Democrats, courting unions and progressives in the primary, find it necessary to address themselves in the general election to moderates within their party, as well as unaffiliated voters. Republicans, drifting right during primaries, face the same conundrum. Promises made during primaries are often abandoned during general elections. All this shape shifting distorts politics.

But what’s the alternative? That IS the problem. From the point of view of party people, the alternative – doing away with primaries – is unthinkable, and perhaps undoable. So, we are stuck with the beast. Not only are primaries a distortion medium; they are a distraction, and a dangerous one at that.

Primaries invite members of the same church, sitting practically in the same pew, to attack each other tooth and claw, with predictable results.

Take the gubernatorial race in Connecticut as a case in point. On the Democratic side, we see Ned Lamont and Dan Malloy making personal attacks upon each other, instead of more profitably addressing themselves to the issues. Malloy has said for years in his self promotion activities as mayor of Stamford that he helped to draw about 5,000 jobs into the city. Very likely, his intervention DID result in companies moving into Stamford during the late boom, bringing jobs with them. During the primary campaign, Lamont, hoping to dress himself in the garb of a Democrat whose principal interest is job growth, discovered a net loss of jobs in Stamford that might be attributed to Malloy.

He salivated.

Now, a net loss in jobs over a period of years does not necessarily mean that Malloy had not been instrumental in attracting business to Stamford; in fact, the net job loss may have been 5,000 jobs less had Malloy not intervened to attract businesses to his city. But never mind all that. In a primary in which the two contestants do not differ greatly on issues that matter, some means must be found to distinguish between the two – and so we get misleading attack ads, poisonous, meretriciously edited UTube clips, highly partisan bloggers with their brains on fire, trackers shadowing primary contestants hoping they might be able to record for some future attack ad a verbal slip or a hypocritical assertion, and all the rest of the political detritus thrown to the surface by a largely successful attack on the traditional two party system. Remember, primaries were DESIGNED to sap the party system. They have been successful. And, of course, campaign finance regulations are a godsend.

What to make of the claim that primaries are good?

They ARE good. Democratic primaries are good for Republicans, and Republican primaries are good for Democrats. No Republican cares much when Lamont bites off Malloy’s ear in a primary. The same is true on the Democratic side. Republican primary attacks on, say, Linda McMahon boost the prospects of her likely Democratic Party opponent in the general election.

Jonathan Kantrowitz, an intelligent progressive blogger who has taken a sudden interest in Rob Simmons’ on-again-off-again campaign candidly admits that quarrels among Republican primary opponents make him dizzy with joy. Simmons is now cool on committing troops to Afghanistan, or so he claims in his latest ad, which has made him attractive to anti-war progressives. Even Blumenthal, these days, appears to be banging the war drums in sinc with President Barack Obama’s plans in Afghanistan, leaving progressive to clutch at the straws Simmons holds out to them.

There is no Democratic primary for the U.S. senate seat soon to be left vacant by a retiring Chris Dodd. So far, Republicans have had to rely on the self destructive tendencies of present Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic Party endorsed candidate. And in this, they have not been disappointed. Blumenthal has rusted up somewhat since he last engaged in a real political campaign, though he has, in the course of his 20 year run as attorney general, become adept at self-promotion. Owing to recent embarrassments – Blumenthal claimed falsely to have served in Vietnam, an almost certain poison pill for other ambitious American politicians – his handlers have kept him from the public arena, a strategy that is not likely to eradicate the rust spots.

In the general election, in any case, politics will return to normalcy, and there are some who hope against hope that we then may get on with important discussions of the issues. The danger is that all the personal attacks during the primaries will be internalized. Political parties have feelings too.

What should the issues be in the general gubernatorial campaign?

In less than two weeks, dazed Republicans and Democrats will go to the polls and choose their respective nominees for governor. The Democrat will be either Dan Malloy or Ned Lamont. The Republican will be either Tom Foley or Mike Fedele, currently the state’s Lieutenant Governor.

Foley’s strong suit is that he has no organic attachments to a Republican Party that has been unable, owing to its small numbers in the legislature, to reform public policy. The governor also has been far less effective in this regard than, say, Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Foley is a fresh face and a fresh mind, a businessman of some accomplishments. Fedele, also an accomplished businessman, has been tied to the apron strings of present Governor Jodi Rell, a popular chief executive who has been unable to shake the view of her, promoted by Democrats, as a caretaker governor.

The most severe problem facing an incoming Republican or Democratic governor is the state’s insolvency. Christie, confronting a comparable challenge – New Jersey has the heaviest debt load of any state -- waged a straight up conservative campaign in which he vowed to reduce his state’s debts though spending cuts. As governor, he has largely lived up to his pledges, incurring the undying enmity of the governing class and New Jersey’s influential media outlets.

In a hard fought campaign, Christie prevailed over multi-millionaire Jon Corzine.

Having inherited a $2.2 billion deficit and a projected deficit of $10.7 billion, relative to the state's $29.3 billion budget, he attacked and closed the $2,2 billion gap by accepting 375 of 378 suggested freezes and spending cuts; in eight weeks in office, he cut $13 billion. Property taxes in New Jersey, as in Connecticut, rise in direct proportion to increases in teacher’s salaries and benefits. Christie proposed a 2.5 cap on annual increases and then proceeded to ask teacher unions to make sacrifices, including unpaid furloughs and reductions on benefits. There was considerable push back on every front. Here is a post-campaign Governor Christie jousting with a reporter:

Watching Christie operate, many Republicans are asking themselves: Can we order up a likeminded governor in Connecticut? Do either of the prospective Republican candidates have the whatchacallits to follow Christie where courageous moderate Republican governors have never gone before?

The general impression among most voters is that many Democrats are holding on and waiting for changing circumstances, a national recovery from a deepening recession, to lift all the state’s boats. Other less sanguine Democrats pray that the windy effusions of one of the two Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls may change once the primary distortion medium is put behind him.

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