The big political news over the weekend here in Colorado is the Denver Post story about former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) likely throwing his hat in the 2010 Democratic primary ring against appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D). If it happens, it is fantastic news for a number of reasons - and I'd say the primary would rank right up there with the Sestak-Specter race in importance for the progressive movement.
First and foremost, a strong primary against an appointed senator is a democratizing process, especially when that appointed senator is someone like Bennet who has never been elected to - or even run statewide for - public office. Right now, Colorado is represented in the U.S. Senate by a person who has received just one vote - that of Gov. Bill Ritter (D). A Democratic primary gives Democratic voters a choice in who gets the party nomination. And though the Denver Post's Mike Littwin regurgitated the tired old notion that primaries "put at risk" party control of the seat, there's not much evidence to support that cliche. I'd say that's particularly true when it comes to attempted coronations of untested candidates like Bennet - primaries, as, say, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) show, often result in a much stronger general-election nominee.
Second, and just as important, a Democratic primary will force Bennet to take more concrete positions on issues. Whether he comes down for or against progressive positions is anyone's guess - on many key issues from health care to EFCA, he has tried to take multiple positions so as to not alienate anyone. But at least a primary should force him to take positions and stick with them.
Third, Romanoff's clearest way to the nomination is to run as a progressive - something he can do, considering his fairly progressive (though certainly not perfectly progressive) record as a legislator. As the Littwin correctly notes:
The way to run against Bennet in a Democratic primary is from the left. Bennet has been mostly silent on labor- backed card-check. He voted against the "cramdown" amendment in a bankruptcy reform bill. There is skepticism about him in parts of the Latino community, if only because Ritter didn't seriously consider a Latino to replace Salazar.
It's pretty clear Bennet is a flawed candidate. He has few roots in state, has never run for any office (much less a statewide one), has weak poll numbers, has refused to take concrete positions on the most important issues, has a well-earned image as an aristocrat/D.C. insider and is being floated by out-of-state special interest cash. That's not to say he won't win a nomination fight, nor is it to say he won't get better on issues and be a great senator. We just don't know.
That's exactly why a primary from a known commodity like Romanoff is great for the progressive movement: it increases the prospect that the nominee - whichever candidate wins - is a better general-election candidate and a better progressive. And having come to know Romanoff fairly well over the last few years, I expect (though certainly can't guarantee) that if he runs he will run an earnestly progressive campaign against his opponent.
|I say that not because of any personal "trust" in Romanoff and his decent progressive instincts, but because politicians tend to embrace ideological formulas that are most politically opportune. Though the Obama era of political sycophancy has convinced some to put their blind faith in the hearts/feelings/brains of individual politicians, the truism persists: Politicians tend to prioritize strategic/ideological paths that provide them the most electoral opportunity, regardless of what is in their hearts/feelings/brains. Put another way, politicians are first and foremost political animals (That was proven by the formerly conservative Democrat Gov. Howard Dean becoming the Progressive Champion Howard Dean for President* in the 2004 primary - and it continues to be proven in almost every election campaign). So when there's a big Senate campaign where a major candidate has an incentive to run as a progressive, that's good for progressives because the candidate will likely run as a progressive and therefore will both A) push the debate in a progressive direction and B) potentially give us a more progressive public official in the end (or at least one who has made his/her political future more reliant on progressive support).
To be sure, the Washington Democratic establishment is going to be screaming and whining and moaning if/when Romanoff formally announces his candidacy. The folks in D.C. continue to subscribe to the "primaries are always bad for the party" theory of politics, even as it has been debunked over and over and over again. But that's to be expected. Party bosses - whether Republican or Democratic - despise grassroots democracy. And their successful efforts to crush primaries have created many of the serious legislative obstructionism our country is being held hostage by right now. As just one of many examples, the party's success in crushing any strong Democratic primary against Max Baucus has helped create a lawmaker who feels so free of accountability to his Democratic Party base that he is happily shilling for the insurance industry by working to destroy this moment of health care opportunity.
Political movements, by contrast, should - almost as a general rule - support the concept of primaries, even against decently progressive Democrats. Primaries make lawmakers more accountable to a public that polls show is far more progressive on issues than the Washington consensus. That accountability comes from a vibrant grassroots democracy that is the most powerful tool for change we have.
We're going to be discussing the potential for a Romanoff-Bennet primary on my drive-time radio show on AM760 here in Colorado this morning between 7am-10am Colorado time (9am-12pm ET). You can stream it at www.am760.net.
* By the way, I think Dean went through a genuine conversion on the 2004 campaign to the point where I sincerely believe his current progressivism is who he now is in his heart. I have no idea if that genuine conversion happened during the 2004 campaign or afterwards - but it is absolutely true to say that Dean as governor was far more conservative than he became in the 2004 primary and remains today.