Country Club Etiquette Trumps Legislative Results

David Sirota

The recent headlines about President Obama working to crush primary campaigns against Democratic incumbents would be great fodder for a canned column looking at hypocrisy.

Without vigorous primaries forcing Democratic legislators to face Democratic voters, those legislators feel free to defy the president's agenda.

Yes, it would be easy to read about the president trying to clear the Empire State’s primary field for appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and then pen a screed wondering how that squares with Obama promising to avoid be(ing) the kingmaker” in local elections.

With the White House citing genteel deference to incumbents as justification for its efforts to stop a Democratic primary against Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, it would be a cinch to write an essay noting that Obama might never have become a successful politician had he not first taken on incumbents in 1996 and 2000.

Watching Obama help newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., attempt to thwart a primary challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), I might have a grand time simply railing on a president who never would have reached national prominence had he not run against machine-backed puppets in a Senate primary. Indeed, this Colorado example is a replica of that now-famous Illinois contest in 2004

Bennet, like one of Obama’s toughest opponents back then, is a millionaire who has never run for public office. And like 2004, that millionaire is being propped up by the establishment against an Obama-esque state legislator who has oodles of experience and grassroots support. The hypocrisy, of course, is that Obama is now backing the tycoon instead of his former self.

No doubt, if I devoted this column to any of that history, presidential aides would respond (if at all) by saying Obama is only aiming to preserve Democratic Party strength. And then I would publish an even easier-to-write follow-up reminding those aides that last year, Obama said primaries like his 2008 presidential campaign have helped the Democratic Party because they have engaged and involved people like never before.”

But incongruity and deceit are tired subjects. From Glenn Beck attacking Wall Street largesse that he previously applauded, to congresspeople criticizing deficits they originally created, there’s so much discrepancy in today’s public sphere that it is no longer interesting. Obviously, Obama and other politicians are happy to kick away the ladder,” as the saying goes – that is, to close off paths they once used and to undermine local democracy with tactics they heretofore inveighed against. Obviously. And it would be a waste of space to obsess over that grotesque banality.

Far less obvious – and far more worthy of precious column inches – is an examination of what the hypocrisy says about the president’s outlook, beyond letting us know he sees Washington as a country club that must protect its own members.

At a moment when Obama’s agenda is acutely threatened by congressional Democratic recalcitrance, the president’s anti-primary posture tells all Democratic incumbents he will defend them, regardless of their position on issues. And that message blunts Obama’s most powerful instrument of legislative leverage: fear of contested elections.

Without vigorous primaries forcing Democratic legislators to face Democratic voters, those legislators feel free to defy the president’s Democratic agenda. Alternately, with primaries, Democratic lawmakers typically compete to show who is more committed to the Democratic agenda. As two examples, Sens. Specter and Bennet went from mealy-mouthed equivocation to strong support of the public health care option immediately after opponents announced primary challenges to them.

Hence, in trying to prevent or weaken primaries against incumbents, Obama is not merely signaling a royalist’s disdain for local democracy. He is exposing a corrupted pol’s willingness to prioritize country club etiquette over policy results. If his agenda ends up being killed, that cynical choice will be a key cause of death.

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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