The primary election process is the greatest cancer on our political landscape. They have become a moral issue, driving politicians to make choices based on survival instead of reasonable policy and personal conviction. Primaries have driven moderate thinking out of the mainstream, and created an environment where compromise is the new four letter word. Primaries are the breeding ground for ideologues who pander relentlessly to the small selection of voters showing up to the preliminary polls. The primary system trades strong candidates for weak ones, swaps reasonability with extremism, and switches compatibility for hostility.
Although both parties are faced with the primary gauntlet, the Republican Party seems to be disproportionately impacted. Over the last two elections Republicans have given up potential control of the Senate, two presidencies, and the potential ousting of Majority Leader Harry Reid due to Tea Party meddling. There have been five different Senate seats that have either flipped or maintained Democrat control due to weaker Republican candidates beating stronger, more electable, Republican candidates in the primaries. For example, in the race for the presidency, both McCain and Romney had to move away from their moderate rhetoric seeking party election, which crippled their electability in the general election. Romney specifically moved from a being a “compromising moderate” to “severely conservative”.
The Media National Journal has tracked conservative and liberal members across parties for several decades. In 1982 the Senate had significant overlap in their political leaning. The eleventh most liberal member of the chamber was a Republican, Lowell Weicker. The thirty-first most conservative member of the chamber was a Democrat, Edward Zorinsky. In between these two men fell fifty-eight Democrats and Republicans, each committed to their party and to their constituents. The House of Representatives shared a very similar markup, with over 60% of the members falling between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. It was under this environment that President Reagan found significant compromise with Speaker Tip O’Neill passing tax laws and social reform.
Today there is significant polarization in political representation which accentuates gridlock and divides government. Political representatives know that any give and take will be fodder for the next primary, and grounds for unemployment. One idea to cure Washington’s curious dysfunctional behavior is opening up primary elections to independents. We should also consider California’s primary system where the top two vote-getters run against each other in the general election. Whatever the solution, we voters need to line up at the polls in the summer like we do in the fall. We need to elect candidates that will be reasonable and thoughtful government representatives, beholden only to those that elected them, rather than a proscribed ideology.