In defense of competitive presidential primaries

While I’m more or less resigned to accepting the 2016 Democratic coronation, I do think some kind of competitive primary for the nomination would be valuable, even if the outcome didn’t change. If for no other reason than that it preps the nominee much better and keeps them from getting rusty while waiting for the other party to get it together.

It seemed “bitter” at the time, but the 2008 primary on the Dem side was one of the best things that could have happened to the party as a whole or either candidate, regardless of who had ended up winning. We never could have won Indiana and North Carolina that year in the general election if the Dems hadn’t been registering people through May and June there during the primary battle.

And on the flip side, we can look at the 2000 Democratic presidential primary. Vice President Gore was guided strongly into the “inevitable” position by President Clinton (whom he then tried to run from, which was weird, given Clinton’s continuing popularity at the time). Gore’s only challenge was a very weak run by Sen. Bill Bradley (NJ), who is a good guy but had no real chance of prevailing.

This meant Gore — who hadn’t run for office in his own right (i.e. not in the running mate slot) since the 1988 presidential primary — essentially didn’t campaign seriously in 2000 until about October. Then he suddenly woke up to the fact he was about to lose and then he campaigned like crazy. He was actually pretty good at it, and appealing, in the final weeks, by most of the accounts and polling I’ve read (since I was a bit too young to notice most of it at the time). But it was too late in the Electoral College, popular vote victory and Florida shenanigans aside. That he even came close enough for it to be stolen from him (if indeed it was) is a miracle given his lack of campaigning until right near the end.

(Exception to the above: Incumbent presidents tend to be hurt by primary challenges, though it’s unclear if that’s because they’re only challenged when already very weak, but they are already in full-time campaign mode anyway and thus don’t need the practice a non-incumbent requires.)

Would Dems benefit from a Sanders nomination run?

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004Normally I avoid posting stuff like this because it’s usually speculative nonsense, but apparently independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been seriously exploring a presidential campaign for the Democratic(!) nomination, to the point of visiting early states like Iowa and talking openly about his consideration of running.

I have concerns about this idea, although I’m open to it and certainly would prefer a run within the party than a destructive independent challenge that siphons votes in the general election.

But regarding concerns: Namely, I don’t see this producing a serious internal debate in the party any more than two virtually identical establishment Dems, because it just means the establishment spends the whole campaign hippie-punching and laughing, without actually running much toward the left.

Sure, he — more than most lefties — might have the rhetorical juice to force tough questions on the trail, rather than being ignored entirely in the media and left out of debates. But I’m still not sure he would be taken seriously. Then again, John Edwards (subsequent personal revelations aside) ran one of the most “serious” populist/progressive campaigns in modern Democratic Party history, in 2008, without being laughed at, yet gained very little traction. Didn’t even win one state.

There’s also an equally important question/concern, beyond the electability and process, about whether governance would be well served by a Sanders win. If he magically had the ability to enact the policies he already supports, I’m sure we would benefit a lot and have much better governance. But we don’t live in a system where magic figures into it. Therefore, the winner is only effective when he or she is not an island and can build governing coalitions.

We’ve got to stop thinking about how to elect a spell-casting sorcerer and more about how to elect someone who can achieve results in the right direction once there. Thus, I wonder how much could really achieve with effectively very little legislative support base (since there’s no large social democratic bloc in Congress and even a centrist Democrat like President Obama had trouble consolidating agenda support under a Democratic majority).

However, in his defense, Sanders has also been relatively good at compromising effectively to make some gains (not just conceding everything to get something passed or refusing to concede anything and getting nothing.) Sanders notably slipped some interesting provisions into the Affordable Care Act regarding funding for rural health care clinics, for example, even if he wasn’t thrilled overall with the law’s approach to health reform.

He is, in that regard, very different from the ineffective foot-stomping wing of many louder members of Congress (from either party, but especially Dems) who talk a good game and then get nothing done. Others have started to copy Sanders’ approach with some success. He’s shown it’s possible to stand by one’s principles while compromising on the approach to making progress toward them.

Sanders is also notably a more strategic political thinker than many on the left. The fact he’s even looking at a run inside the Democratic Party, rather than outside of it, is a testament to that. But he’s probably most noted for having entered elected office as an independent after some early failed quixotic statewide runs, by studying where his biggest bases of support were in those campaigns and then concentrating on working his way up from there. So, first running in city politics in the community where he was most well regarded… then rising from Mayor to U.S. Representative… and ultimately to the U.S. Senate where he is now. By starting small and delivering results, he could show everyone he meant business, which was rewarded by re-election and elevation. All without compromising his principles to get there.

In sum, I think there’s no real reason to oppose him running for the Democratic nomination — though I wouldn’t be in favor of him running outside the party and splitting the vote — but it’s a very open question as to how effective he would be, both as a candidate or as a president (if he made it that far). And I have doubts it will achieve even the goal of bringing up important issues/questions inside the Democratic Party primary process. But that’s no reason not to try. If anyone can move the dial, it’s Bernie Sanders.

GOP working hard to make sure Dems fully united in 2016

Screen capped this from the top of Google News yesterday. It’s a pretty good summary of where the Republican top brass is right now:
From the people who brought you an ancient, walking future health emergency with anger management issues as their nominee six years ago comes… rampant, idle, and sexist speculation based on nothing!

At the rate they’re going with these absurd attacks, even the Anti-Hillary Democrats will be willing to walk through a field of land mines to get to the voting booth to elect her in November 2016.

Rick Santorum: Rebranded or Receding?

I’m not a big fan of getting into the endless discussions on distant presidential election fields, and I’m certainly not a fan of Rick Santorum, who I believe to be a horrible person. But I was mildly intrigued by some extensive comments he made to the Associated Press about a possible second presidential run during an interview about his latest book.

He’s still quite obsessed with decrying sex — an obsession that made him famous initially as a U.S Senator — and in the new book blames poor voters for having too much consequence-free sex. But he also seems to be staking a clear position as the “Big Government Republican” wing’s standard-bearer, much in the way that George W. Bush was, and against the Paul/Cruz libertarian wing.

Anxiety among those voters remains high, and Republicans have for too long talked to the top earners and not the workers.

“A rising tide lifts all boats – unless your boat has a hole in it. A lot of Americans, we’ve got holes in our boats,” Santorum said. “Millions and millions of Americans (are) out there who want good lives but have holes in their boats. … They just see the water level going up and their boat sinking.”

That’s why, he argues, candidates need to put forward policies to help those voters.

“I’m looking at 2014 and I’m thinking the Republican Party is heading toward No-ville, which is `we’re against this, we’re against that, we’re against this.’ We’re not painting a positive vision for America,” Santorum said in the interview.

“There’s a strain within the Republican Party now that smacks of the no-government conservatism,” Santorum said. “That wasn’t Ronald Regan. It wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt. It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t any Republican that I’m aware of. It wasn’t Calvin Coolidge. And yet there seems to be this creation of this strain of conservatism that has no basis in conservatism.”

Santorum said Republicans should respect Reagan, but he doubted the former president would offer the same policies today that he did during the 1970s and 1980s.

(N.B. Calvin Coolidge was 100% the embodiment of “no-government conservatism” so I have no idea what he’s talking about there…)

If he decides to run again, this puts him in a bad spot with a lot of Republican primary voters these days, which he seems to know. So, it could be a hail-mary pass to try to rally a lot of unusual primary voters who want an interventionist government (that helps the “right” and “deserving” people, of course) and care about social justice, in the same religious vein he does.

But it’s probably incompatible with “Gospel of Wealth”-style Protestants and the libertarian/tea party-style Republicans who still dominate much of the party’s primary process. It’s also badly incompatible with the Big Business Republicans who kept his 2012 presidential hopes alive despite a mess of a campaign committee.

So, this may not be a rebranding, so much as another way to cash in while there’s still some amount of attention on him, before ultimately opting not to run. Comments like “Yeah, I don’t know if I can do this. It’s just tough,” are not usually associated with people who decide to run after playing coy. (If the campaign is tough, being president is tougher.) And he’s got a reasonably successful private sector career now, making Christian-themed movies. Plus, he’s still (quite reasonably) very concerned about the health of his youngest daughter who has a severe genetic disorder that may not allow him much more time with her.

If I had to guess, I’d say he won’t run again, but it’s always hard to predict these things because circumstances change and people get pressured in or out of the race unexpectedly. But to me it sounds like he’s pretty much pulling the plug on running and just wants to be a “thought leader” in the party (which I don’t expect will work out too well).