Monday, March 27, 2006

Sherrod Brown, Accommodationist: And Why We Need Real Primaries

One of my recurrent themes is that we need to stop allowing Democratic power brokers in proverbial smoke-filled rooms to pick our candidates for us. States hold primary elections for a reason: to let various Democratic candidates air their ideas half a year before the general election, and let Democratic voters choose which candidate they think best reflects their ideas
and ideals. The debate would capture media attention, educating the public about the spectrum of Democratic ideas, and the eventual nominee would have both name recognition and an energized base going in to the general election against his or her Republican opponent. Good system, right?

But that's not the way it works much of the time. Instead, the Democratic Party or, even more often, narrow-minded, undemocratic groups like the Democratic Leadership Conference and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pick a candidate to back before the primary. In other words, they don't just support our Democrat against the Republican; they support their Democrat against anyone else's Democrat, rigging the outcome of the primary election before the voters ever reach the polls. They do this by promising that their candidate will always have more campaign funding than his competitor (which often makes competitors quit before they start, seeing that defeat is inevitable); by giving information to their choice and withholding it from the competitor; by browbeating campaign contributors to only donate to their choice; and by telling competitors that their challenge to the favored candidate is bad for the Party. Real primary battles are a rarity in today's party politics. (More here and here.)

We've seen this in the recent Illinois Congressional primary, where establishment-backed newcomer Tami Duckworth narrowly defeated long-time progressive Christine Cegelis; in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic establishment is giving enormous support (and tactical advantages) to pro-life, pro-Alito, Vichy-in-the-making Bob Casey over the far better Chuck Pennacchio (Pennacchio's VichyDems guest blog here); and in Ohio, where Party-backed Sherrod Brown bullied Paul Hackett out of the race.

Ken Rudin has a good analysis of the Duckworth-Cegelis race that puts the problem in a nutshell:

Illinois' Sixth Congressional District... [is] the district being vacated by Republican Henry Hyde after 16 terms. It encompasses the suburbs to the west and northwest of Chicago. Two years ago, Christine Cegelis held Hyde to just 55 percent of the vote -- the closest margin for Hyde since he was first elected in 1974. Understandably, Cegelis wanted another shot.

But national Democrats had other ideas. They decided that one way to compete with the Republicans on defense and national security issues is to recruit veterans to run for Congress as Democrats. One of their most high-profile recruits is Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq following a grenade attack. She has attracted plenty of money and a ton of endorsement: Both of Illinois' U.S. senators (Barack Obama and Dick Durbin) support her, as does DCCC chairman/Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL). National fundraising appeals on her behalf were sent out by John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Here's the rub, at least according to quite a few Democratic activists I've spoken to: Duckworth refused to run as an anti-war candidate. Her views on Iraq were either more tempered, designed to appeal to the Republican majority of the district, or squishy, depending on your perspective. Cegelis, on the other hand, ran as an out-and-out peace candidate, winning the backing of Democracy for America (once run by Howard Dean and now run by his brother Jim) and other assorted liberal groups. And when the votes were counted, Duckworth, as expected, won. But she won by only three percentage points -- a stunningly close race, given her financial advantage, endorsements and compelling personal story. The moral out of the 6th CD primary: Celebrity is nice, but message counts as well. It's nice to run as an Iraq war vet and be charismatic, but having something to say might not be a bad idea, either.

This is not to say that Duckworth is a bad candidate; perhaps her even-handedness on the war is a smart tactic, given the makeup of the district (carried twice by George W. Bush) . Nor should she be counted out for the fall; national Democratic leaders have invested a lot in her candidacy and will do what they can to make her better in the next seven months. And who knows what the national mood will be by then? Still, she goes into the general election against state Sen. Pete Roskam (R), who had no primary challenge, as an underdog.

If Duckworth was such a strong candidate, then she should have been able to compete fairly against Cegalis without high-level, outside-the-state help from Hillary Clinton, her lapdog strong supporter Rahm Emanuel and the DCCC, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (who, despite his wonderful, roof-raising speech at the last Democratic Convention, is turning out to be a mock-centrist, poll-watching, traingulating DLCer as bad as any of them). The result of the establishment Dems' meddling is that Illinois' Democratic activists are divided, half of them are ticked off and unlikely to do footwork for Duckworth in the general election, a longtime Democratic politician has been shut out of the backroom, and the Democratic candidate enters the general election an underdog. Nice work, Hillary. Nice work, Rahm.

I'll close by shifting attention back to an older story, Sherrod Brown's establishment-backed powerplay that shoved Paul Hackett out of the Ohio Senate race. The one thing Brown had going for him is that, unlike Duckworth and Casey, he has solid progressive credentials; if anything, he's more liberal than Hackett. Proving that I'm not as interested in ideology as I am in fairness and in the belief that honestly contested primaries help the Party in the general election by educating the public and stirring up the base, I still objected to the heavy-handed tactics used to force Hackett out of that race.

Over the weekend, though, a reader tipped me off to this troubling quote by Brown about Russ Feingold's resolution to censure the President for authorizing the NSA to wiretap American citizens without any judicial or congressional oversight:

"It just takes us off discussions we ought to be having in this country on issues that really matter in people's lives," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Democrat from Ohio who is running for Senate.

Well, damn his hide. They still don't get it. What we're looking for, and especially what those fabled "swing voters" are looking for, isn't so much candidates who are "liberal"; it's candidates who are courageous. And what we oppose isn't so much candidates who are "conservative"; who we hate are the politicians who evade and triangulate and accommodate and generally allow the mock-conservative neofascists to keep raping the nation we love. Sherrod Brown isn't even in the Senate yet, and already he's triangulating and undercutting the best resolution to be presented in the Senate in six years. He may be liberal, but he's not fighting the necessary fight.

So, ladies and gentlemen, and especially those VichyDems readers who've gently chastised me for saying some liberals are part of the problem: I give you Sherrod Brown, whom I went out of my way to defend even after the Hackett fiasco: a liberal, Democrat, anti-little-d-democratic, accommodationist triangulator. Any "Democrat", liberal or otherwise, who affirmatively attacks Feingold's censure resolution isn't worthy of our support. I'd rather demonstrate to Brown and his handlers that their backroom formula isn't working any more, wait two years, and elect someone courageous who's committed to democratic principles instead of another nascent Vichy. Even a liberal one.

H/T to Eyes Wide Open.


lucretia said...

The problem with saying some liberals are part of the problem is to not identify them as liberals, because they aren't, and this just confuses the readership. Such individuals are playing games and just assist the DLC/DCCC.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Lucretia! I knew you'd jump at this one.

Here's what I'm still trying to sort out: I think Brown, in Congress, would be in the top third of legislators on the Sierra Club, ACLU, Human Rights Watch, NARAL, etc. scorecards. I really think he's a liberal in terms of the stances he takes on the issues. And I don't want to redefine "liberal" simply to exclude anyone who's not a team player, especially since the mainstream of the party has gotten so illiberal.

But this quote of his, and his participation in the pressure put on Hackett (who's more "conservative" on the issues), is troublesome even though he's "liberal."

So, really, I'm finding myself fighting on three fronts. First, I want to move the party away from mindless, politically-calculating centrism for centrism's sake and back to a progressive/liberal stance. Second, I want to start enforcing some party unity on key votes. Third, I want to see some guts and political aggressiveness on the part of our representatives.

How the three interact is still confusing to me. For instance, if Reid would back censure full-bore, and Brown didn't, then I'd be happier with Reid than with Brown -- even though Reid's pro-life and Brown's pro-choice.

How do you juggle those different concerns?

lucretia said...

Sherrod Brown of Ohio may have been a liberal. But I think what happened with this whole Dem Party shakeup is the power plays go on in the end to keep the likes of this Congressman's preserve safe and sealed for him, and other so-called now traitor liberals do the same.

My point in this is to not tarnish the word 'liberal' here. Leave the liberal concept alone which is just, and go after all the Dorien Gray's post mortum like Lieberman who are trying hard not to show it.

Liberal is being smashed by right and center. The smashers are doing an excellent job. They don't need assistance.

I understand your objective, but please clarify.

I thoroughly agree that it's been too long that Dem power brokers have been picking our candidates for us and this goes down to the city council level. Democracy has been a half joke for a long time, but now with Bush fascists in charge, it's kaput.

Indeed real primary battles don't exist.

This is where Howard Dean comes in since he's repairing the Dem Party from grassroots in all states, working himself with County and State Committees, has sent several hundred operatives (DNC paid) into the states to assist with grassroots candiates who are not moneyed but are not DLC, but regular Dems.

This is where the oligarchs or corporations come in. They want candidates campaigns paid by them so they can pull the strings. And that's where most of our Dem high-powered elected officials and primary candidates are nested.

That's what Howard Dean wanted to break in the 2004 primaries and why he was sabotaged. Afterwards, that's why he formed Democrary for America (DFA) all over the country, now run by his brother, Jim Dean. And as you noted DFA supported Cegelis.

Of course Duckworth is anti-war because that's what the New Democrats want.

In the mainstream Dem Party people waiver or are simply ignorant of the split.

A sad example is a phone call I get monthly from an org. fighting the Medicare mess about the next meeting in Berkely. When we were talking about the coming effort to defeat Rep. Pombo, San Joaquin Valley's GOP environmental scourge and handpicked by Delay,he said with a question when I mentioned McNerney who is running and sought the seat last time, and whom I favor, "well, he's against the war?"


(I'm recovering now in a Swiss sanitarium with the man from "The Magic Mountain"--yes, he's still there.)