Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room

The most interesting race in yesterday's election didn't make the front page of The NewYork Times. Although it took place in upstate NewYork, it didn't even rate a very prominent mention in the "N.Y./Region" section. And although Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Armey all got involved, it wasn't mentioned at all in the "U.S." section.

I'm referring to the race between Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Douglas Hoffman for the vacant seat in New York's 23rd Congressional district. What made this race noteworthy is that the Republican nominee, one Dede Scozzafava, withdrew from the race after the above-mentioned Republican luminaries backed Hoffman, finding Scozzafava insufficiently ideologically pure. (In a truly breathtaking display of chutzpah, Republicans then denounced her as a turncoat for endorsing Owens.) Owens won, making him the first Democrat in that seat since before you were born.

If I were a Democratic apparatchik, I might be a bit saddened by this result, as it seems likely to slow down  the Republican party's slide toward self-destruction. As someone who believes in multi-party democracy and wants to see at least two parties with intelligent policy ideas, I am cheered. Not that Republicans show much sign of learning. The right is already spinning the results, with Mike Huckabee saying it's Republicans' fault for not choosing Hoffman "from the get-go," and other conservatives saying it serves the party leaders right for trying to foist their choices onto Republican voters.

Foist? Yes. For Scozzafava was chosen by the local Republican Party county committee leaders. So a larger issue raised by this election is how we should feel about party primaries versus back-room deals.

By shifting choice from party bosses to voters,  primaries were of course seen as a way to make elections more democratic. Do they? Here's the issue: in a two-party election (other things equal, with some simplifying assumptions, etc., etc.) the winning candidate is the one closer to the preferences of the median voter. That is, the candidate closer to the center of the electorate gets the most votes.

But with primaries, the candidates selected are those closest to the center of their own parties, who may be far away from the center of the electorate. Thus we have the Arlen Specter phenomenon, where a candidate who is easily electable cannot win his party's nomination.

In theory, of course, primary voters could take account of this possibility in voting, and vote for the candidate most likely to win the general election rather than their personal favorite. In practice, this often doesn't happen. That was the idea behind the Democratic Party's designation of superdelegates to the national convention-- the assumption was that elected officials and party officials would be more pragmatic than the rank and file. But this reasoning was not made very explicit, with the result that in the last election there was some outrage at the idea that superdelegates might go against the expressed wishes of voters-- Democratic voters, that is.

What we end up with, it appears, is increasing polarization among elected officials (particularly at the national level, where ideology tends to be more important), and the increasing impossibility of bipartisanship. And if both parties nominate relatively extreme candidates, there is the possibility of electing true loonies, who are far from what most voters would want.

A few weeks ago (October 14), I advocated bringing back the filibuster. As long as we're thinking the unthinkable, perhaps it's time to bring back the smoke-filled room. Without the smoke, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment