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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  • A bloody primary hurts Repubs because it keeps their assholeness in the spotlight, but we all knew that whichever of Hillary or Barack survived was going to be President because they and their supporters had actual brains. Bloody primaries help Democrats

  • Yeah… the other thing we all need to remember is we now have far-right GOP-dominated states which are passing laws they KNOW are unconstitutional, then enforcing them anyway. Reproductive rights is just one angle on this.

    I can easily see a state like Alabama, for instance, saying “We don’t care what the federal courts say or even the Supreme Court. Gay marriage is illegal here, period.”

    I think we may be entering an era of fracturing and open defiance not unlike the Brown v. Board of Education times.

  • FLL

    On the later thread about Indiana (link here), I mentioned Christian Identity, which is a white-supremacist theology, and the inevitability of the Christian Identity folks claiming that their sincerely held religious beliefs allow them to discriminate against black people. Cases like this are certain to hit the courts in places like Indiana, and probably sooner rather than later.

    I see you recognize the damage that was done by gerrymandering after the 2010 election. Yup, we have to wait until the next census in 2020 to find out what’s up.

  • In the case of these new religiously-based discrimination enabling laws, the LGBT community isn’t alone in being targets. The radical right conservatives have the bit in their teeth and they’re running with it.

    They want the right to discriminate against women, including in hiring, equal pay, and requirement to adhere to the Family Leave Act — but I’ve even seen it floated in recent weeks that they want to make it legal for an employer to fire a woman if she uses contraceptives. Not just pays for them herself, but simply uses them.

    On top of this, they also want to be free to discriminate against Muslims. Plus we already know they want minorities and immigrants to be disenfranchised.

    2016 is going to be a watershed election, but it’s nothing compared to what’s coming for 2020, with the decennial census and reapportionment. I think we’ll know by then whether America is a lost cause.

    But yeah… we seem to be in an era now with LGBT where we’ve had some amazing victories, but now the bigots are arguing for the right to put “No Gays” signs in their shop windows. With no apparent sense of irony, remembrance or shame on their part…

  • cleos_mom

    About as useful and sane as a lot of the comments here; spam away.

  • FLL

    The war for LGBT rights is by no means over. My guess is that marriage equality will be the law of the land by summer, but wasn’t Brown v. Board of Education the law of the land starting in 1954? It took the Deep South another ten years to fully implement desegregation in schools, public accommodations, etc. I think today’s anti-gay crowd has fewer options than the racist crowd in the 1950s and 1960s because it’s more strategically challenging to put actual human beings of different races together in the same classroom. The marriage equality side is in a better situation because it’s much easier to get county clerks in the Deep South to just say, “OK, I’ll issue marriage licenses because I don’t want to get sued.” Even taking that into consideration, I’m curious to see what petty (probably ineffective) obstruction tactics Southern state governments might try starting in July.

    Anti-discrimination laws and license-to-discriminate laws are the areas which will be one big dogfight, complete with pie-throwing contests. This topic includes any proposed federal protections (when Democrats regain the House of Representatives). I’m sure it will be very messy, unlike the very straightforward victory of marriage equality. The repeal of DADT and the rise of marriage equality were, after all, very easy yes-no choices, with no gnarly details involved. Either you can serve in the armed forces or you can’t. Either you can get married or you can’t. On the other hand, discrimination law is, at best, a tangled mass of details. This is a situation equivalent to Brown v. Board of Education, where you had the challenge of putting real live children of different races together in the same classroom. Discrimination law (or license-to-discriminate) involves working-age adults rather than school-age children, but the messy dynamics are the same. Now start to discuss bathrooms for transgender employees. That’s what I mean when I say that discrimination law is going to be a dogfight in a way that marriage equality and repeal of DADT were not.

  • Indigo

    Somewhere out there is another candidate with the potential to muscle Hillary aside. Barry did it on the strength of good looks. But really, the vote is likely to be rigged to the right anyhow, just like Florida over the past two election rounds. It’s time for a change is certain to be the leading slogan as the primaries near. Ted Cruz isn’t the most likely national nominee but he’s clearly setting a tone the bigots love and, frankly, these days, the bigots have the loudest choir along with the media’s attention. What’s that governor of Texas’ name again? As for the Democrats . . . the smartest thing Hillary could possibly say is, No!

  • Oh, every time I hear a wingnut politician open his mouth and say, “Well, I’m not a ______, but…”, I hear a neo-Know-Nothing.

    Whether that blank is filled in with “doctor,” “teacher,” “sociologist,” “climate scientist,” “geologist,” “biologist,” “meteorologist,” or any other profession that requires education, training, experience and often license or certification, it doesn’t matter. What follows that opening is almost guaranteed to be an expression of breathtaking ignorance and sheer distilled WRONG.

  • mirth

    Well, enough to be very comfortable here my semi-interested spot on the sideline.

  • mirth

    True, and regardless the truth if it.

  • When you’re up to your ears in corporatist bullshit, anyone with pseudo-populist message seems like a savior.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Perhaps you just know too much.

  • mirth

    Like I said, I don’t get it.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Wonderful, a video on the power of projection and how people fool themselves.

    Her qualificaions amount to the fact that she can fool some people some of the time and that she’ll play ball with the banksters.

    She supports Romneycare/Obamacare, a right wing alternative to socialized medicine that vests medical decisions in the hands of profit gouging insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

    She supports Obama’s antiworker, rightwing proposal for a $10.10
    minimum wage to tak3 effect in 2016. Items 2-6 are from http://www.ontheissues.org/senate/Elizabeth_Warren.htm#

    Warren voted for the confirmation of Obama’s billionaire friend Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce. “Why ‘unions don’t like’ Penny Pritzker – Pritzker’s nomination as Secretary of Commerce shows how the Democratic party is leaning towards the rich… She raised some $745m for Obama’s 2008 presidential run, and was influential in 2012 as well, though quieter. Perhaps the campaign’s tough tone on wealth soured her, or perhaps the appearance of closeness to someone who, as Jodi Kantor and Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times noted at the time, was engaged in some of the same shady practices as Mitt Romney –
    and had her very own subprime scandal to boot.” Al Jazeera 05 2013
    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/05/20135873932733462.html

  • mirth

    I don’t quite get the push for Warren. Yes, she’s very likable and says some of the things many want to hear, I’m glad she’s in the Senate and I hope she stays there, but there’s her justification for Israel’s actions against Palestine and exactly what are her qualifications for the presidency at such a critical time?

    I guess…If you love somebody enough…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuVpT1mv5KY

  • Exactly. And Florida and Arizona and Wisconsin and Utah and Texas and Alabama (etc., etc.)…

  • Bill_Perdue

    If they do and if H Clinton wins they’ll like face torture and jail like Chelsea Manning.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The best candidate the Democrats have to play a repeat of Obama’s fake left, go right strategy is E Warren, but she’s not playing. Perhaps someone made some promises about cabinet posts?

    “Hillary Clinton Privately Courts Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton held a private, one-on-one meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in December at Mrs. Clinton’s Washington home, “a move by the Democrats’ leading contender in 2016 to cultivate the increasingly influential senator and leader of the party’s economic populist movement,” the New York Times reports. The post Hillary Clinton Privately Courts Elizabeth Warren appeared first on Political Wire.

  • Indigo

    I share your hope for a dump but you know what? she’s cruised through so much fire, it doesn’t quite register. She’s a trooper so watch out, not that I like her but I bet she can make our emerging police state a role model of efficiency in all the right ways. She’s got the balls!

  • Indigo

    Because Indiana.

  • Indigo

    I’m waiting for the first Know Nothing to say so openly, “I know nothing.” Maybe the “I’m not a scientist” meme is the post-modern continuation. But I think the Jebster could get away with it.

  • It would not surprise me at all. That is the direction we’re heading, which is also why I’ve been so strident about not declaring the war for LGBT rights to be virtually over and won.

    The enemy is regrouping and they will attack with everything they have. And basically they’re looking to use ‘beliefs’ as an excuse for exemption from any and all laws they don’t like.

  • The fact that Hillary Clinton was blatantly ‘stoppable’ tells me that the Democratic voter, while many seem quite vocally supportive of her, the majority are really just waiting for someone with a more populist message.

  • mirth

    I disagree that “The average Democrat outside the Beltway has no idea who Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb are,” Webb’s name recognition being pretty high from his Senate days and O’Malley’s rushing to the fore in the last few weeks has greatly upped his. Webb, with his oft-disgruntled blame of the “anti-war left” for failures in Vietnam, his slow-crawl to marriage equality, his aversion to climate controls and support of the Keystone pipeline making him more inline with todays DNC; O’Malley, with his support for federal abortion funding, his early-on support of same-sex marriage, support of limits to the 2nd amendment and pro “smart gun” technology and other stated opinions and actions as governor makes his appeal level high to those left of center Dems, while his abundant Israel love and support of their “peace wall” will have outspoken DNC approval. Plus, those with lesser-known socio-political-personal histories are always primary stars. These two should not be so easily dismissed.

  • FLL

    I’m going to listen for candidates recycling any early-twentieth-century far-right sound bites. Some Tea Party types have already co-opted the anti-immigration hysteria of the 1920s KKK. After all, both the Tea Party and the KKK are textbook examples of American nativist movements. How about a dash of 1920s European fascism just for flavor? I’m waiting for examples of outright plagiarism.

  • The Republicans’ problem is they require ever more strict adherence to their increasingly rigid far, far right conservative orthodoxy, without once seeming to recognize the more ideologically ‘pure’ their Chosen One candidate, the less likely he is to have popular support.

    Even Jeb Bush isn’t considered ideologically pure enough. And the GOP base has become so accustomed to their steady diet of bloody red meat, they refuse to accept anything else.

    To switch metaphors: The quadrennial GOP Clown Car is going to be more clowny than ever this cycle. With some genuinely scary clowns in it this time around.

  • I also remember how in 2008, Hillary Clinton was considered all but unstoppable for the nomination going into 2007.

    Until she was proven to be quite stoppable after all, and by an upstart junior Senator from Illinois. One whose primary qualifications seemed to be (1) he’d given a good speech at the 2004 DNC and (2) he wasn’t Hillary. Oh, and (3) he and his people recognized the far more populist message was the way to go, rather than the constantly triangulating ‘Third Way’ / neo-liberal Clinton kept going with.

    Anybody who thinks she’s a done deal for the ’16 nomination is foolish. She might be, she might not, but as you say there are any number of possibilities which could bring her down.

  • nicho

    I’m waiting for the day when someone does a document dump of stuff lifted off Hillary’s “unbreachable, secure” homebrew email servers. You know that Russians, the Chinese, Israel, and a bunch of script kiddies — if not the GOP — have all been through those servers. Then, her candidacy will crash and burn, and the Democrats will be standing there with their thumbs up their butts wondering what the hell to do, as Jeb struts into the White House for Bush 3.0. The Democrats have no Plan B. That is just stupid beyond all human belief. Always have a Plan B. Hillary is 67 years old. Health issues are a concern as you age and can pop up without warning. She also has a ton of baggage — and a lot of people out there to exploit it. And there is no understudy. Just breathtakingly foolish.

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