In defense of bloody primaries

As Hillary Clinton begins to run into friction in her next attempt to win the presidency, Democrats are — to differing degrees — losing enthusiasm for the headlining race of 2016. At the same time, GOP candidates are facing any number of scandals-of-the-day, but Republican enthusiasm is as boisterous as ever. Why?

It’s quite simple: Democrats have one serious contender for the presidency; Republicans have around a dozen possibilities. When a Republican candidate hits a snag, like Christie’s bridge-related problems, support shifts to other candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. On the left, though, there is no other plausible candidate to which to shift support, so it simply evaporates, and Democrats everywhere end up a little less enthusiastic, boding ill for the party’s fortunes next November. While a large primary runs the risk of bloodying at least one candidate, the lack of such a primary offers little protection from cross-party attacks, and limits media attention necessary to develop an effective campaign narrative.

If Democrats want a vibrant primary, there are other possibilities besides Hillary for the Democratic nomination, but they face a significant gap in name recognition. The average Democrat outside the Beltway has no idea who Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb are, and if they want to mount a viable challenge to Hillary, each needs to bridge that gap quickly. Bernie Sanders, should he run, faces the same issue, plus that of how to exchange his independent mantle for a Democratic one.

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are better-known but less-likely candidates. Warren fervently denies that she is running, despite Democratic activists’ efforts to drag her into the race. Biden could easily mount a campaign, but makes no appearance of doing so, most likely due to his already-long list of minor foibles and gaffes with which he could be tarred, to say nothing of his age.

It appears, then, that Hillary will inevitably win the Democratic nomination. Looking beyond 2016, though, how can Democrats avoid the same weak primary predicament and deepen the bench?

Republican primary, via Creative Commons

Republican primary, via Creative Commons

A larger primary requires a larger number of experienced politicians with ambition. At the moment, the Democratic talent pipeline could at best be described as abysmally sluggish. Congressional leadership has changed shockingly little since 2008, so existing talent is not gaining new experience.

The exception is jumps from the House to the Senate, which often comes at the cost of the loss of those who lose primaries from the system altogether, as Nancy Pelosi recently bemoaned about the upcoming Senate race in Maryland. If the Democratic leadership refrains from intervening, similarly vibrant primaries are likely in Senate races in Illinois and California. However, with Harry Reid’s endorsement of Rep. Chris Van Hollen for Maryland Senate, the intervention has already begun. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin is likely to play kingmaker among Reps. Tammy Duckworth, Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster. Democrats in DC are already endorsing Attorney General Kamala Harris in the California race despite a wealth of possible contenders. Ultimately, it is unlikely that voters will get any significant say in these races at all.

Republican leadership, on the other hand, is loath to intervene in primaries due to the risk of slighting conservative activists, thereby inviting their own primary challenges from the right. While self-interested, this policy keeps the GOP talent pipeline moving better than the Democratic one. For instance, Eric Cantor loses a primary to Dave Brat, Kevin McCarthy moves up to Majority Leader, Steve Scalise moves up to Majority Whip and Bill Flores becomes chair of the Republican Study Committee.

Consequently, the Republican caucus is decidedly more youthful than the Democratic one:

histogram of Congress's age by party and house

Age of Members of Congress by party, as of March 2015.

Despite the loss of Aaron Schock, there are still far more Republicans in Congress young enough to develop the experience necessary to eventually run for president. Compounded by the comparatively smaller number of Democrats in Congress at the moment, the left can make no such claim. For instance, Democrats have no talent analogous to Paul Ryan, who at 45 has already run for Vice President and recently ascended to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee for Ways and Means, the most coveted of committee assignments in the House.

If Democratic leadership wishes to develop such talent, it needs to shift the party machine into low gear until primaries are over. Such restraint is difficult when cable news has been covering the 2016 election since the 2012 one, but is utterly necessary. Campaigns are fully capable of making themselves heard without any legs-up from the party. Ultimately, yes, good politicians will lose their jobs, but they will go on to new ones, and new talent will be minted.

Perhaps more importantly, the public will once again have a say in the future of the party as candidates are forced to ask voters for support instead of Beltway power-broker politicians.

The 2016 will be a particularly important one for Democrats. As a presidential election year, Democratic turnout will be better, offering the party a chance to take back the Senate, and at least close the gap in the House. State legislators will be elected who will have a say in the 2020 US House redistricting that will determine the balance of power for the next decade.

With so much at stake, the Democratic party badly needs the more freely-flowing market labor economy that primaries produce. A planned economy did not work well for the USSR, and it is not working well for the Democratic Party, either.


Edward is interested in economics, foreign affairs, and American and Democratic identity. He lives on Capitol Hill and is a graduate of Pomona College.

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