07 March 2012

The Ohio Players: meet the Campaign for Primary Accountability

Overshadowed by last night's death struggle between Romney and Santorum in Ohio was the activity of a "SuperPAC" that has had no dog in the presidential fight so far. The Campaign for Primary Accountability intervened in at least two congressional primaries, one for each major party, and emerged with a 1-1 record. On the Republican side, the CPA-supported insurgent Brad Wenstrup upset incumbent Rep. Jean Schmidt. On the Democratic side, in an incumbent-vs-incumbent battle for a redistricted seat, establishment Rep. Marcy Kaptur whipped antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was supported by CPA. Kaptur will go on to face "Joe the Plumber," who won a close GOP primary in the new district, in the general election.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability declares itself against incumbents, though in the Kaptur-Kucinich race they targeted the more powerful of two incumbents, perhaps with an eye of giving "Joe" a weaker opponent. As a SuperPAC, the CPA exercises the rights confirmed by the Citizens United decision to counterbalance the recognized advantage incumbents have against challengers in almost every primary. Because Ohio has been redistricted, CPA probably had a better chance to make a splash and claim a scalp there than anywhere else this season. The group's mastermind, Eric O'Keefe, is a deficit hawk and advocate of term limits. He also has some revisionist ideas about the evolution of political parties that should be of interest to regular readers of this blog. He recorded some of those ideas for a 2007 talk uploaded to the YouTube channel of his Sam Adams Alliance.

In short, O'Keefe sees the purported democratization of the party-nomination process through direct primaries as a kind of coup perpetrated by elected officials against party "activists." On one level, this is a bizarro-world or mirror-universe interpretation of the movement for direct primaries 100 years ago, which sold itself as the empowerment of the rank-and-file at the expense of dictatorial party bosses. One of the biggest advocates of primaries 100 years ago was a former officeholder, Theodore Roosevelt, who had become an insurgent. He believed that primaries gave him the best chance against the incumbent advantage enjoyed by William Howard Taft, and he promoted primaries on the assumption that they empowered the rank-and-file to overrule bosses. On the other hand, we should take the movement's own propaganda with a grain of salt. One can see why an elected official might resent a boss's decision that it was someone else's turn in office, and why he might want to appeal over the boss's head to the people. The question for a revisionist like O'Keefe is whether he goes too far in idealizing the old process simply because it resulted in more frequent rotation in office, which he regards as an end unto itself. If such a system were back in place today, would it give more power to "activists" or to a new generation of bosses? It may not matter to O'Keefe as long as the restored system enforced rotation in office, but it might matter to the rank-and-file as it did to all those partisans of a century or more ago who resented bossism. In any event, O'Keefe's observations help a little to clarify my own thinking about how the state embedded itself in the party-nomination process, even if I don't agree with all his conclusions on the consequences.  He may not be welcome as a SuperPAC provocateur, but his underlying ideas about the party system are worthy of further discussion.


Anonymous said...

What is the point of rotation? If the person elected into office is doing a good job, why should the public take a chance on someone new coming in? But if the person elected is doing a bad job, I don't see that that gives them an advantage over someone who might do a better job.

Samuel Wilson said...

The point of rotation seems to be twofold. First, democracy abhors the idea of an indispensable man and rotation discourages anyone from thinking himself so. Second, on the assumption that power corrupts over time, rotation limits the opportunity for corruption. But an honest debate will allow for disagreement on both points. History may present examples of people who proved both incorruptible and indispensable.

As for why incumbency gives an advantage to the incompetent, people assume the fact from the ease with which incumbents get re-elected. They assume that, having power, the incumbent has a power over people that makes it easier to retain office until he really screws up.

Anonymous said...

I did not say someone who considers themselves "indispensible". I said that an elected representative who is doing a good job should be voted back into office. An elected official who is not doing a good job (Rick Santorum, for example) gets voted out - even though they are incumbent.

Samuel Wilson said...

Didn't say you made any claims about indispensability. There's just a concern that someone who gets re-elected repeatedly might get the feeling that he's indispensable. Meanwhile, all statistics show that Santorum's defeat was exceptional, and he did get re-elected once. Can you imagine that he, with his ideology, did a good job those first six years? Or do you leave that to his constituents to decide?

Anonymous said...

Someone who gets reelected continuously does so because they are doing a good job, they are great at deceiving their constituents, are cheating at the polls or are in a district that is so partisan that the constituency would rather reelect a dishonest politician rather than give the other side a try - in which case they deserve to get screwed.