American politics remains one of the world’s top spectator sports, a series of horse races that deeply engage the political and chattering classes—and moderately engage the public at large.
Amid all the back and forth and noise, it’s sometimes difficult to remember why it matters. But it does.
In New York State on the Republican side, the upcoming primary presents the refreshing spectacle of an actual ideological fight. Regardless of what you think of the substance and style of Tea Party activists, they are trampling through the Republican establishment everywhere and giving voters a choice, not an echo. (Where have you heard that before?)
By contrast, on the Democratic side, nothing that exciting is going on. There is an orthodoxy that remains unchallenged within the ranks of the Democratic leadership and the party’s core of voters. It is—again, without passing judgment—an identity-based liberalism, where group affiliation matters as much as ideology. These Democrats are united by a profound distaste for the tone and ideology of Republicans and the Bush years, and there’s not a lot of straying from that perspective among this year’s candidates.
That’s not to say that the contests are dull. The Hakeem Jeffries–Charles Barron race in Brooklyn is a contest between two styles of African-American political leadership, the outcome of which is certain to be noticed. The Rory Lancman–Grace Meng–Elizabeth Crowley battle in Queens is a challenge to the county organization’s authority to control electoral outcomes. And the Charlie Rangel–Adriano Espaillat showdown both tests the old war horse/young Turk dynamic and will decide which ethnic group can claim political preeminence in the newly created district.
But all of these contests, and most of the others that will take place next week, will have no effect on the real politics of 2012. The winning Democrat will be sent to Washington to continue representing a solidly Democratic district.
In three districts, however, the winner of the primary will help determine the national political dynamic and who controls the Congress, and that matters in every corner of the land.
NY-18, -19 and -23 have contested primaries. Two are in the Hudson Valley, one slightly west in the Finger Lakes, and all three are microcosms of the opportunities and pitfalls faced by Democrats nationally. All three winners will face potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents in districts that are heavily populated by voters who are white, somewhat aging, rural and suburban and economically challenged.
Rather than list the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates vying to be the Democratic nominees, there’s a trend out there that’s worth noting. Or more accurately, being hoped for.
Democratic primaries since the ’60s have been the battlefield on which the party and the nation settled large questions of national direction. The Vietnam War, civil rights, gender- and sexual-orientation equality, the environmental movement—you name the issue, primary battles shaped the outcome.
Now, as the fear of complete Republican control of Washington grows and grows, it seems as though Democratic voters are going to focus on that most nonideological of concerns: “Who the hell can win this thing?”
The great secret of American politics is that almost all the time, ideas matter most. Republicans understand that, and have offered a series of “big ideas” (austerity, liberty, tax reduction, social traditionalism) that I don’t share, but which certainly have been on the political upswing.
Rather than contest those ideas, Democrats are flocking to a win-and-hope-to-survive mentality. The candidate who best persuades primary voters of his or her ability to win in November will, in my judgment, prevail in the primary. And while that’s not a long-term strategy for a national coalition that aims to achieve and exercise power for the good of the people, it’s probably the right place to be in June of 2012.
So good luck to all of the candidates, even the Republicans, and let’s hope for a New York congressional delegation that tips the national balance back toward the middle class, economic recovery and social equality.
Just win, baby.
Richard Brodsky is a Senior Fellow at Demos, a NYC-based think tank, and at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. He served in the Assembly until 2010 and chaired the Corporations and Environmental Protection committees. He appears regularly as a contributing editor on WRNN-TV and on Fox Business Network.
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