Monday, June 18, 2012

Primary campaigns are performance reviews

There's a story that's been on memeorandum today, getting recirculated by a few conservative blogs, about how one of Obama's old profs at Harvard has come out to argue that he must be defeated in November because he has failed the progressive cause. And he's got one thing right: the more progressive your self-identification, the more disappointing you've found the Obama presidency, between complete immunity for crimes against humanity and complete immunity for frauds perpetrated mainly before he assumed office, to committing crimes against humanity and normalizing many of the illegal practices of his inestimable predecessor.

Don't ask me to defend Obama's record on these and any number of other points of law and policy. I think they're indefensible. But I will defend my decision to vote for him this November, despite all of this.

That decision is made much easier by this year's Republican presidential field, currently winnowed down to a bot and a crazy person. But it really would be a stretch to imagine voting for any Republican, no matter how much he or she might themself be sane and reality-grounded -- because the party caucus is not sane and reality-grounded, and the bills that got to that person's desk would be written by the lunatics running the asylum. You really think Jon Huntsman would veto all the batshit crazy nonsense that a united Republican House and Senate would fling his way? If so, I've got some beachfront property in Utah to sell you cheap.

All of which is neither here nor there, since what I wanted to talk about are the relative roles of primaries vs general elections. Here's the point, people: general elections are referenda on caucuses -- on the large political constellations of power, far larger than the individual president, let alone the individual legislator for whom one is voting. Primary elections are referenda on the intra-party divisions -- or, if you like, referenda on the individuals running, since it is pretty rare that you'll have candidates for the same seat who are indistinguishable in terms of policy preferences and ideological emphases.

With all due respect to Professor Unger, it's an idiotic suggestion to start campaining against Obama from the left now, after the primaries are done.

OK, I didn't spend a lot of time digging here. Maybe he's been campaigning against Obama for a while now, and that sneaky liberal media just decided to pick up on the story now because it needs fodder for its "This is bad news ... for Obama" cycle. Whatever, it's not my concern, since I only want to address the top-level point. Once the primaries are over, you've lost your chance to swing the balance of power within your own coalition; your only play now is to lift your own coalition over your opponents.

Now I was a big fan of a primary challenge to Obama from the left, for a number of reasons. The first is that I'm tired of the screwy location of the Overton Window; tired of Equal Time for Right-Wing-Nutjobs and no time at all for the Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Shrill; tired of right-wingers sincerely believing that Obama is the leftiest lefty who ever threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park with his left hand, because they've never heard anyone on their TV who actually represents the progressive ideas. Those people can ignore the guests on Up With Chris Hayes because Up isn't broadcast on any network they know of. But they can't ignore it if an actual progressive stands up and highlights how the President has handed them, the right wing, victory after concession after tax cut. The second, and this may be my academic predilections talking, but you get better public policy out of enlightened, technical, public debate, than you do out of rallying around the flag and anointing the incumbent regardless of his actual performance.

Primary season is job review season for an incumbent politician. And that review is done by the people in his or her own coalition, the ones with the vested interest in how well he or she plays the game and plays it for their team, the people whom that politician most directly represents, the people who made up the critical bulk of the votes that got him or her into office in the first place, who now get to pass judgement on how well they are represented. Did the candidate vote with the party when he or she should have objected? Or object when he or she should have gotten in line? Was the candidate a compromise candidate between coalition factions, and if so did he or she represent all those factions fairly? What were the problems that office-holder was sent to address and solve? What progress was made? What unexpected bumps in the road did we encounter?

We have a very strong meme in the USA, that one should vote for the person, not the letter by their name. Bollocks. Individuals don't make policy or laws, individuals don't wield power in a constitutional system: blocs do. (Yes, I know, the office of the presidency is powerful, but the president is neutered if both houses of Congress are arrayed against him. It's his bloc that gives him room to swing.) Your vote in November is for (or against) a bloc, and that is all. If you want finer control over what your vote means, vote/volunteer/campaign in the primary.

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