Friday, May 28, 2010

The Beginning of a Solution (Part III)

There's (at least) one more thing we need to do: we need to stop dividing Congress (and state legislatures) into majority and minority parties.

The soul selects her own society (according to Emily Dickinson, at least), so no matter how the law is written or what is mandated, legislators of like minds will seek each other out. Consider Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, a conservative Democrat who switched parties last December. Some say it was to preserve his chances of reelection in a right-leaning district, a la Arlen Specter; but others say he was simply going the way of many others in Alabama who have switched from Democrat to Republican over the years. As I mentioned in my two previous posts, there are dangers to switching parties and to moderate candidates participating in primaries. Rep. Griffith has a tough contest before he can run for reelection as a Republican. But, considering his views on certain issues and his opposition to the president, if voters hadn't known he had once been a Democrat, would they have been able to tell?

Maybe we can't keep the pundits from "keeping score", noting how many Democrats vote for Republican initiatives and vice versa; maybe we can't replace the primary and caucus system with a complete write-in system that would allow candidates to run without having to declare (or even hold) party affiliation; and maybe we can't all just "get along"; but we can remove the federal government's seal of approval on this centuries-old congressional civil war. Leaving the current system in place perpetuates the "us versus them" mentality, and even legitimizes it. It feeds the notion that, as one West Wing character put it, "being in power means everyone else can take a seat for four years".

That line, "everyone else", actually reminds us that there are more than just Republicans and Democrats in Congress (and in the country). If we stop dividing Congress into a majority and a minority, then not only do we combat the internecine warfare between the major parties, but we also acknowledge the presence of other parties, and of legislators who don't belong to parties. That could be even more important than stopping the bickering between the "top two".

I watched a movie recently that showed a senator chairing a hearing on the news as part of the plot. When the graphic with his name came onscreen, it didn't show the R, D, or I at the end of his name indicating what party he represented. While a future of not having lawmakers and executives identified by their party is a private dream of mine, right now it's simply unrealistic. Pundits love to remind you which senator belongs to which party, especially when he's doing something that his party doesn't like. It's "good television". Maybe that's the problem. We're a nation of theatergoers. While there are people willing to sit through a report on the latest floor vote, the average viewer needs an angle, a bit of drama, something to make it more exciting. That's why you'll see more grandstanding on C-SPAN lately (assuming you watch C-SPAN, that is).

Partisanism is the biggest problem with politics today. It's hardly a metaphor to say that Congress has drawn battle lines, with the two sides choosing leaders. Whichever side has the most members decides who heads the committees, which bills and amendments are considered, and when the votes are taken. Should the "winning" side have all the privileges? You may think so; but this is not a game, no matter how gleefully we may watch the other side fall. Leadership shouldn't be awarded to a particular representative just because the opposition didn't have enough good candidates in other parts of the country. And then there are the independent members of Congress who must depend on the largesse of the two major parties to earn a leadership position. This is not democracy in action.

Suppose, instead, we had a Congress without majority or minority leaders, where the committees weren't divided into ranks, and where the votes weren't tallied and reported as a "victory or defeat" for one side or the other. I wrote recently about racism, and how the government unwittingly perpetuates by requiring we list our race on the official Census. The government is its own entity, its own personality. It doesn't see race the way we do; it doesn't recognize it at all. It recognizes only one type of American: the free one. Forcing the government to acknowledge another type, any other type, is wrong. That principle is just as true for partisanism as it is for racism.

I've posted twice before about George Washington's warning to the nation about what would happen if political parties were allowed to rise in this country. He said it would lead to deep divisions, to "revenge ... dissension ... [and a form of] frightful despotism" as the parties traded their time in power with each other. We shouldn't have a legislature divided. Some say division is good, calling it "competition" or "opposition". With 535 members, I think Congress has enough competition and opposition. And, as I said before, representatives and senators will seek out likeminded colleagues regardless of the official divisions. It shouldn't be official, though. Congress is a battleground; it shouldn't be. The only war our leaders should wage should be for the future of the country, and not for the future of their party.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Beginning of a Solution (Part II)

Today is as close to Super Tuesday as it gets in a non-presidential election year. There are at least three competitive U.S. Senate races and one House race that will offer portents about the future of both major parties. One race, the special election to fill the House seat vacated by the death of John Murtha of Pennsylvania earlier this year, will be definitively decided today, with a successor chosen and sent to Washington. The Senate races are a little murkier, with primary fights likely to decide the fate of two iconic Senators.

Primaries, as I noted in my last post, are largely unfair to the candidates themselves. Primary voters tend to be more partisan (and less forgiving) than general election voters, which gives the advantage to the most partisan (and least compromising) candidates. A moderate has hardly a chance of surviving, unless he or she is a sterling candidate.

But let's take a look at some of these candidates. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was, if I'm not mistaken, a Democrat, originally. He was recruited by President Ronald Reagan into the "big tent" GOP of the late 70's and early 80's, and remained a Republican for about thirty years. Last year, when his moderate and even liberal stances on some issues drew a primary challenger, Sen. Specter defected from the Republican Party and became a Democrat. Pundits across the mainstream media portrayed this as a sign that there was no room for moderates in the GOP. (I wonder if they'll say the same about the Democratic Party if Rep. Joe Sestak defeats Sen. Specter for the nomination today.)

Can a man like Sen. Specter win in today's political climate? What about a woman like Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas? She also faces tough opposition from both sides, with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter challenging her liberal credentials. She needs not only to defeat him in the primary, but to secure a clear majority, or she will have to face him again in a runoff election next month. At the very most, the pounding she's taking from her opponent on the Left will help her seem more centrist when she faces her Republican opponent in the general (assuming she gets there).

One sitting senator who has already been eliminated from consideration is Bob Bennett of Utah, who was ousted at a GOP convention "dominated" by Tea Party activists. Though he has represented Utah for almost two decades in the Senate, he is now barred from either winning the June 22 primary or running as an independent (though a write-in campaign is still a possibility). The Republican nomination there will go to either businessman Tim Bridgewater or lawyer Mike Lee.

I won't try to defend any of these senators, or their records. I mention them to illustrate how the winners of elections past can easily become the losers of today's primaries. What good does a primary do if its main effect is to eliminate candidates who have already demonstrated their appeal to the majority of voters? If Utah, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania have already sent these people to Washington multiple times, then why should a few thousand people hold the power to keep them from even running again? I've attended Tea Parties myself, and I believe in the movement. It's important for ordinary citizens to involve themselves in government and even in the "system"; but ordinary citizens also need options if they're to have true democracy. These candidates, sitting senators all, deserve the chance to take their case to their states; and the states deserve the opportunity to hear that case.

What's the solution, then? To let everyone on the ballot? That way lies chaos. There must be order, after all; but there also must be fairness. I believe I have a solution.

There's one more contest today that I'd like to mention. My friend Pia Varma is another victim of a corrupted system. She is running for Congress as a Republican in Pennsylvania against Rep. Bob Brady. Due to some errors made by the GOP establishment in her district and after an unsuccessful court battle to try resolving those errors, she was ejected from the ballot. Her recourse now is a write-in campaign. If she gets a thousand votes today from members of the district, then she'll remain on the general election ballot.

That is the solution, I feel. Rather than having a primary, caucus, or convention to decide which candidates will be "allowed" to run for office, just let the people decide. Eliminate the primary system, which practically fosters pandering and partisan influence, and replace it with a complete write-in system. Why shouldn't the candidates or their surrogates have to go door-to-door, meeting their prospective constituents, asking directly for their votes? If they can convince enough voters to support their candidacy, then they'll be on the general ballot.

This may seem like another version of the primary system, which also requires a candidate to collect signatures; but unlike the primaries, there is no one "winner" for each party or ideology. Having one conservative in the race wouldn't preclude another. Similarly, you could have more than one liberal candidate, and any number of moderates. One person collecting enough signatures would mean simply moving on to the general election; it wouldn't mean that you had "beaten" anyone.

Also, you won't have to limit yourself to "primary voters". You won't have to declare what your party is, or even join one. You would speak directly to the voters at rallies, townhalls, and their front doors, and tell them exactly what you plan to do for them and why you are a better candidate than all the others. You could speak to Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, even Communists if you wanted, and you would be armed only with your plans for the city, district, state, and/or country. They would have to judge you based on your ideas and your principles, rather than the letter next to your name.

That leads me to the second part of my solution. Without the primaries, caucuses, or conventions, there would be no more "official" party candidates. The general election ballot wouldn't be ordered by the major party candidates first and the independent candidates (if there are any) next. No party identifications would be placed on the ballot. Voters would go to the booths knowing only what you have told them on the campaign trail. They couldn't go expecting simply to check whichever candidate had a (D) or an (R) next to his name; they would need to pay attention to what you have said to know whether they agree with you.

Obviously, this wouldn't change current party affiliations, or anyone's memory. People would still remember that Blanche Lincoln was a Democrat and Bob Bennett was a Republican; but at least there would be no more Arlen Specters jumping parties. This way, a candidate wouldn't worry about losing voters on the Right, on the Left, or in the Middle. He could simply go to another area and ask for support. If he failed to find it, then he wouldn't be able to run again. That is true democracy.

Let's go a bit further in this. I mentioned the presidential primary system in my last post, and how if a candidate loses a few early primaries, then he can't compete in later ones. If the primary system were replaced with a write-in system, though, then a candidate wouldn't need to stop campaigning just because one or two states rejected him. He could even afford to skip those states entirely. What if we had a system where, if a presidential candidate collects a certain number of signatures from a particular state, then he's on that state's ballot? And if he is on the ballot of, say, three-fifths of the states, then he's on the entire general ballot? It still eliminates the "lesser" candidates, but it also cuts down on partisanism. It even allows the people who don't join political parties (and are therefore banned from certain states' primary systems) to have a voice in who the eventual candidates will be.

Now, where does this all leave the DNC, the RNC, and other national parties? Right where they are now. National parties will still be allowed to support and endorse whichever candidates they want, and candidates can still seek their endorsement. After all, to win an election, you still need money and manpower, and the national parties have both. On the other hand, as I pointed out in my last post, it's becoming easier to run your own campaign, these days. People are donating directly to candidates, volunteering on their own, and organizing with hardly any encouragement at all. This sort of atmosphere is practically ideal for a full-fledged write-in candidate who has never joined a political party or sought its endorsement. We have the opportunity to cultivate a whole new generation of political leaders that aren't bound by partisanism, who can operate wholly independent of "the establishment". That generation may not come tomorrow, this November, in 2012, or even in our lifetime; but isn't it a goal for which we should all work? Isn't that a solution we should all seek to implement?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Beginning of a Solution (Part I)

So, Governor Charlie Crist is running as an independent candidate in this year's Florida Senate race. Why? Because he wants to be a senator and he doesn't feel he can win the Republican nomination against former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. He's probably right.

Primaries have always seemed ... counterproductive to me. You have a candidate like Gov. Crist (or John McCain, for that matter) who has been a moderate on many issues throughout his career, but when he decides to seek another, perhaps higher, office, he needs to convince members of his own party that he's not so "middle of the road" before they'll nominate him. He's not fooling anyone, of course, because your average primary voter has a long memory and tends to be unforgiving. Now, maybe you're like Sen. McCain and can secure the nomination anyway; or maybe you're like Crist and are forced to pursue an independent bid. Either way, whatever promises you made to the extremes of your party will haunt you in the general election when you try to appeal to more moderate voters.

What makes it worse is when you consider the presidential primary system, which forces a presidential candidate to campaign on a state-by-state or region-by-region basis. The old complaint, which I've made myself, is that Iowa and New Hampshire essentially have the power to choose who the major party nominees will be long before other states will even have the opportunity to meet most of the candidates. What's the solution? A rotating primary schedule that changes each election season? That still leaves the power to choose the nominees in the hands of a very few states; and it still doesn't solve the problem of candidates catering to primary voters and then veering to the center in the general election.

Even after the politicking and campaigning are over and you've elected a new state senator or district attorney or Congressman, the parties are still watching him. His own party is watching to ensure that he's representing their interests; the other parties are waiting for him to make a mistake, any mistake; and if he does something that either side doesn't like, then they stand ready to replace him, if they can.

I believe that most elected officials run for office because they want to help, to change things for the better; but before you can do anything, you must be elected. To be elected, you need to run through a labyrinth of legalities, get both your face and your message to the people who will be voting, convince them you're right, and hire a campaign staff that could number in the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. All of this requires vast amounts of money, which political parties, PACs, and independently wealthy candidates can provide. How can a candidate survive without either their own fortune or the support of a major political party?

You're seeing the beginning of a solution in Florida. No, not with Gov. Crist; with his Republican opponent, Marco Rubio. How did Gov. Crist, one of the most popular governors in recent Florida history, with the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and millions of campaign dollars, go from a double-digit lead to a double-digit deficit in the primaries against a relatively unknown son of Cuban exiles with the taint of scandal hanging over him? What turned it around, so to speak?

For one thing, he's very charismatic. He's a good decade younger than Gov. Crist, and looks it, too. He's a savvy public speaker, and even being the son of immigrants works in his favor (Republicans, after all, are pro-legal immigration). The other thing, though, is that elections are getting cheaper. Airing a campaign message doesn't mean limiting yourself to television or even newsprint anymore. In the year since Rubio declared his candidacy, the online community has practically rallied around him. On Facebook alone, he has more than four times as many "fans" as Gov. Crist. Also, small donors have begun bypassing the RNC and are donating directly to candidates they prefer, which translates to more influence for the voters and less for the establishment. The influence of the Tea Party, of course, cannot be discounted, as Rubio's commitment to conservatism is more easily demonstrated than Crist's. He's no extremist, but the bridge isn't as far for him as it was for Crist.

To a lesser extent, President Obama did the same thing when he sought the Democratic nomination and captured the lion's share of small donors against the "establishment" candidate, Hillary Clinton. I say "to a lesser extent" because he had the patronage of some very high-profile individuals, such as Oprah Winfrey and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Marco Rubio has also received some high-profile endorsements, but they've mostly come in the last couple of months, after his meteoric rise had already begun.

The average voter is increasingly bypassing "the process", as it were. Donating directly to candidates rather than their party, ignoring the conventional wisdom about who can and cannot win, focusing on the candidates and issues themselves, and not being afraid to stand at a rally and say "this is what I want from my leaders" all help to return power to its proper place in a democracy: with the people. Whatever we may think of them and their personal politics, we all owe a great deal to candidates like Barack Obama and Marco Rubio for not "playing along".

It's a beginning; but waiting until the "right candidate" enters the race isn't going to be enough. I'll discuss what more we can do in my next post.