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?
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