The Primary Weapon

by Jonathan Chait | July 13, 2009

A few weeks ago, Senator Dianne Feinstein announced that she and other Senate Democrats harbored reservations about President Obama’s plans to overhaul the health care system. This came atop previous comments to the effect that she didn’t believe in sweeping reform (“I am a bit of an incrementalist”), that the cost of reform might be prohibitive (a concern she failed to raise when voting for the Bush tax cuts in 2001).

The reaction from the left was swift and, by the standards of such things, furious. Which is to say, not very furious. Union president Gerald McEntee complained in a press release, “Senator Feinstein’s comments today take the discussion of health care reform in the wrong direction.” The wrong direction! Take that, Feinstein! And if finding herself on the business end of a polite but disappointed press release didn’t put the fear of God in California’s senior Senator, the liberal group Health Care for America Now piled on with a petition stating, “[W]e need a senator who is championing, not naysaying, the need for reform. We’re hoping Sen. Feinstein becomes a ‘champion’ for the people of California and stand [sic] up for President Obama's health reform.”

Somehow this display of left-wing muscle failed to intimidate Feinstein, who has continued to express her skepticism about the main reform plans. She now taunts her pro-reform critics, “It doesn’t move me one whit. They are spending a lot of money on something that is not productive.”

Feinstein’s clearly right--the liberal efforts to sway her aren’t productive. I have a suggestion for something that would be productive: run a primary challenge against her.

Before I lay out my reasons, let me introduce my proposal by way of comparison with another senator. Meet Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa. Knowing only his circumstances, you’d think Grassley, who faces reelection next year, would be trying to ingratiate himself with the popular president who won his state by nearly ten points. Instead, he is issuing confrontational boasts (“I take pride with being an obstructionist”) and sending out bizarrely hostile, syntactically terrifying Twitter messages (“When you are a ‘hammer’ u think evrything is NAIL I'm no NAIL.”)

Now, maybe Grassley is simply letting loose his long-repressed inner-Sonny Corleone. But I suspect a survival calculation at work. The Washington Post reported last month, “Grassley’s Senate colleagues worry that he has become preoccupied by the distant but unfamiliar threat of a primary challenge in 2010.” This threat has circumscribed Grassley’s desire for health care reform, which was never exactly Ted Kennedy-esque in the first place. And now Senate Democrats, determined to win bipartisan support for health care reform, are negotiating not just with Grassley, but with his imaginary right-wing primary opponent as well.

A couple months ago, I wrote an article explaining the chronic dysfunction of congressional Democrats. I suggested two reasons why they fail to support their president the way Republicans do. First, because they controlled Congress for decades, the institution’s diffident, ideologically polyglot culture has left a deeper imprint on the Democratic Party. Second, business influence tends to pressure Republicans toward partisan fealty and Democrats away from it. I didn’t mention a third reason: Republicans use the threat of primary challenges to keep their members in line. Democrats don’t.

And they don’t for strategic reasons. 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.

And that’s the point. The possibility of a primary challenge could balance out Bayh’s incentives, thus aligning them more with those of the national party. He could still maintain a moderate profile on many issues, but might not, say, threaten to filibuster the once-in-a-generation progressive agenda.

Primary electorates consist of a small, highly partisan subset of the electorate, and the prospect of submitting themselves to a partisan loyalty contest terrifies centrists like Bayh. As Arlen Specter bluntly explained his unwillingness to take on a GOP primary challenger, “I’m not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, not prepared to have that record decided by that jury.”

In fact, Specter provides a useful case study in the potency of a primary challenge. The predominant view holds that conservatives utterly blew it by challenging Specter. And, indeed, by running a conservative primary challenger against him, conservatives cost themselves a Senate seat the GOP probably would have held. Yet the threat of a primary challenge (which nearly unseated Specter in 2004) forced him to side with his party on nearly everything for several years. It can also be directly credited with forcing him to abandon--and possibly kill--labor law reform at the beginning of this year.

The GOP’s problem is that the challenge to Specter got too strong. The sweet spot is a challenger strong enough to scare your popular centrist incumbent, but not quite strong enough to actually knock him off. Likewise, the Democrats would ideally have some challengers lined up who can frighten the likes of Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu into taking some small risks for their party’s agenda, without actually defeating them.

Granted, you can’t calibrate the effectiveness of your challengers, and any challenge runs the risk of working too well. But is that prospect really so damaging that it must be avoided at all costs? The benefits of tighter party discipline may justify the sacrifice of the occasional seat in the Senate or the House. The specter of Specter haunts any Republican who contemplates alienating the base.

Alas, many Democrats view any public pressure on fellow Democrats as counterproductive fratricide. The Washington Post recently described an anonymous party strategist as being “apoplectic” over liberal advertisements targeting wavering moderates. “These are friends of ours,” the strategist groused. “I would much rather see a quiet call placed by Rahm Emanuel saying this isn't helpful. Instead, we try to decimate them?”

May I suggest that “decimation” offers a useful metaphor here, though one that cuts against the strategist’s point. When Roman soldiers fled in battle, their entire unit would be punished with decimation--every tenth soldier pulled out of line and bludgeoned to death by his colleagues.

Dianne Feinstein would probably call this practice “not productive.” But it sure seemed to work for the Romans.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.


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