At The New Republic today, Jonathan Chait looks at the imperiled state of health care and climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate, and raises a perennial question: should wavering or wayward “centrist” Democrats be disciplined through the threat or reality of primary challenges?
Chait goes through the pros and cons of Democratic primary threats–and the less-than-effective disciplinary alternatives–at some length, and concludes that with proper (if difficult) calibration, such threats might be a good idea, particularly since they seem to work for conservatives. He’s very persuasive when it comes to blanket condemnations of such tactics, which are common among those tactical folk whose mission is simply to maximize the D-to-R ratio:
The conventional view deems primary challenges counterproductive. When senators or members of Congress depart from the party’s agenda, the thinking goes, they’re maintaining an independent profile necessary to win reelection. If you drag them too far to the left, you’ll just lose the seat to a right-wing Republican. Better to safeguard Democrats who will support their party most of the time rather than risk electing a Republican who won’t do it ever.
The logic breaks down in two ways. First, some members move to the right for reasons that have nothing to do with self-protection. Maybe they’re catering to special interests rather than home-state public opinion. (Take the squeamishness of many Democrats over a public health care plan, which commands over 70 percent public approval but virulent opposition from the health care industry.) Or maybe they’re just more conservative than their constituents. (Take Feinstein, or Joe Lieberman.)
Second, while the party has an interest in protecting the popularity of its elected officials, it doesn’t have an unlimited interest. Suppose, for example, that the Democrats had a chance to pass historic health care and climate change legislation, but that doing so would make Evan Bayh 20 percent more likely to lose his reelection bid. I’d take that deal. Obama would take that deal. But I’m pretty sure Evan Bayh wouldn’t.
This all makes good sense, but I’d take his analysis of why Democrats (particularly in the Senate) sometimes stray a bit further. Sometimes “public opinion” as measured by national polls, or “interest-group pressure” as embodied by generalizations like “the health care industry” don’t really capture what worries an individual senator–not just as a cowardly pol, but as a representative of a particular place. In-state or regional factors can enormously affect which “public opinion” and which “interest groups” matter, viz, the perennial Heartland resistance to reforms of agricultural subsidies, and the perennial energy-producing-state hostility to climate change legislation. The United States Senate is by design an unrepresentative institution. Citing national polls on, say, the “public option,” isn’t likely to sway a small-state, red-state Democratic senator.
Another factor that may be more vulnerable to a primary threat is something Chait alludes to indirectly in his discussion of Chuck Grassley’s wavering position on health care reform: institutional prerogatives. For reasons of personal ego, committee jurisdiction, and perceived influence, senators often position themselves either as independent Sun Kings who must be placated, or as Swinging Players whose vote must be bought with concessions. Some progressives really don’t get this, and assume that Democratic indiscipline is all about corrupt corporate money, when it’s often just about self-promotion.
Reminding Democratic senators via primary challenge threats that they may not have the luxury of playing Washington games can be helpful, but so, too would be a stronger effort by Democratic congressional leaders to link the ascension to Sun King status to party discipline on key votes–and in the Senate, particularly the cloture votes necessary to enable a majority of senators to enact legislation.
Chait does suggest that “calibrating” primary threats is very difficult. I’d emphasize that. No senator welcomes a primary challenge, but at least in conservative territory, some Democratic incumbents might welcome a poorly funded left-bent challenge that enables them to show off their independence. A credible primary threat that doesn’t completely divide the Democratic Party is what might work as a disciplinary device, and might even succeed, to the instruction of others. But every case is specific: The most famous recent primary challenge, Ned Lamont’s to Joe Lieberman, made sense because Lieberman represented a party and general electorate to his “left.” But it ultimately failed because the GOP took a dive to help Lieberman win as an Independent.
Without question, Democrats shouldn’t categorically rule out primary challenges, or the threat thereof, to party heretics. But they shouldn’t rule them in as a matter of course, either, and should continue to examine whether a Democratic congressional caucus is institutionally or ideologically incapable to deliver on the president’s legislative promises.