Cleburne Times-Review Column for 13 August, 2006
“So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The major party system in America (Democrats vs. Republicans) has been in place, more or less unchanged, since 1856. Third Parties (Populists, Socialists, Ross Perot) have come and gone, but they never survived for long. One or both of the major parties always managed to incorporate just enough of their least-radical ideas to strip the insurgents of power. When Theodore Roosevelt sought the Republican nomination for a then-unprecedented third term as President in 1912, primary elections were still a novelty and few states (mostly the ones where the progressive movement was strongest) had them. Presidential nominees of both parties were chosen in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms by party bosses. So Roosevelt, even though he was clearly the favorite of rank-and-file Republicans, was denied the nomination in favor of his more conservative successor, William Howard Taft, and TR ended up running as an independent on the Progressive or Bull Moose Ticket. Since then, primary elections became part of the major reforms enacted throughout the country and now dominate the system. Eventually, the US Supreme Court forced the Democratic Party in the South (which ruled like Stalin, brooking no competition) to stop using primary elections to enforce white supremacy by preventing blacks from voting in them and they theoretically became even more democratic and open. The problem with the system now is that party identification in America, the percentage of voting Americans willing to call themselves Democrats or Republicans, has dropped dramatically in the last forty years. As a result, fewer and fewer people are voting in party primaries. So, naturally, primary elections tend to be dominated more and more by those motivated to turn out, i.e., the extremes of both parties, liberals for the Democrats and conservatives for the Republicans. Three elections so far this year show the effects of this trend. In Texas, Carol Keeton Strayhorn took a long hard look at the numbers and saw that there was no way she could ever defeat Rick Perry in a Republican Primary Election, especially with Perry suddenly going all-out to pander to religious conservative voters. So now she’s running as an “Independent,” though her campaign is pretty clearly geared towards socially moderate suburban Republican voters. In Michigan, Cong. Joe Schwartz, endorsed by President Bush, Sen. John McCain and the National Rifle Association, nevertheless lost the Republican Primary to a social conservative backed by the ultra right-wing Club for Growth, Tim Walberg. And, of course, in the most highly publicized vote, Senator and 2000 Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman narrowly lost to millionaire businessman and former Republican Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic Primary for the US Senate. Like the Michigan race that focused on abortion and stem cell research, the Connecticut race was about “hot button” issues. Lieberman alienated liberal Democrats for supporting the war in Iraq, but more than that, his relationship with President Bush was seen as too cozy and too deferential. In fact, a picture of President Bush warmly hugging Lieberman became as infamous as Bush bussing Cong. Henry Cuellar of Texas, which nearly led to Cuellar losing his own primary election. So, in some respects, you might say that Lieberman was a victim of Bush’s incredible unpopularity. Most of the coverage of the Connecticut Senate race focused on the allegedly nefarious influence of the “blogosphere,” political writers (predominately liberal) who post their thoughts (but mostly just links to other peoples’ thoughts) on the internet. By my rough calculations, 95% of everything on the internet is crap and the political blogosphere epitomizes that, with a variety of posters using the anonymity of being on-line to make various outrageous, moronic, and (with the confluence of the Israeli-Lebanon War and Lieberman’s re-election bid) borderline anti-semitic remarks. Of course, when notorious blowhard and sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly tried to inflate a few idiots into an indictment of all liberals, he gilded the lily by selectively misquoting things his crack team of researchers stumbled across while combing the blogs for ammunition. He also conveniently ignores even more vile rhetoric, calling for assassination and torture of political opponents, which regularly appears out from under assorted rocks on conservative blogs. Ultimately, though, how much influence did the blogosphere have? Probably not that much. For one thing, Ned Lamont was rich enough to self-fund his campaign; he didn’t need “netroots” money, unlike Cuellar’s opponent Ciro Rodriguez, who undoubtedly benefited from it. And while just about every liberal blog sported a Ned Lamont ad, only a small percentage of the hits on these sites were from registered Connecticut voters. It was the equivalent of buying TV ad time during the Superbowl for a local Justice of the Peace race. Absent exit polling data, I tend to doubt that very large numbers of voters made their choices based on what some guy on the internet told them. Lieberman has now announced that he will run as an Independent; ultimately, this may be the fate of the primary election, pushed out of the mainstream and doomed by well-funded Independents like Lieberman and Strayhorn who decide to bypass their own parties.