What­ever Bernie San­ders wants to be

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

All this talk about cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics is led by none other than Bernie San­ders, who’s thwarted the po­lit­i­cal pri­mary elec­tion sys­tem es­tab­lished a cen­tury ago. San­ders is an In­de­pen­dent, not a Demo­crat, un­less he chooses to be so. He also calls him­self a demo­cratic so­cial­ist or pro­gres­sive. Al­though he cau­cuses with the Democrats in the Senate, he is what­ever he wants to be, no mat­ter the pur­pose of the pri­mary sys­tem. His ef­fort on Tues­day to get his lib­eral can­di­date elected in the Michi­gan Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary failed mis­er­ably — by some 20 points. San­ders is so far to the left of Demo­cratic Party poli­cies that he leads to di­vi­sion, paving the way for Re­pub­li­can vic­to­ries.

When I wrote my high school Amer­i­can his­tory text­book in 1992, I made an ex­tra spe­cial ef­fort to make cer­tain that all my en­tries were ab­so­lutely cor­rect. So with re­spect to the pri­mary sys­tem, I wrote: It “gave

[all ital­ics mine] a chance to choose their can­di­dates for of­fice. (Be­fore the pri­mary sys­tem came into use

lead­ers had cho­sen the can­di­dates.)”

In short, re­form­ers in the early 20th cen­tury rested their pri­mary sys­tem re­form on the foun­da­tion that there would al­ways be a two-party sys­tem as the ba­sis of Amer­i­can democ­racy and that vot­ers, to cast a bal­lot in a pri­mary, could do that only as an af­fil­i­ated mem­ber of ei­ther of the two par­ties. The great fear of re­form­ers in the 1890s was that a third party or par­ties would arise, threat­en­ing the sta­bil­ity of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

The vi­sion of re­form­ers in­cluded not only the sta­bil­ity of pres­i­den­tial op­tions in elec­tions but, more im­por­tantly, of Congress. Note that through much of the his­tory up to that time, Congress held sub­stan­tial power. To pro­vide for the sta­bil­ity of that in­sti­tu­tion in law­mak­ing was crit­i­cal, and hav­ing nu­mer­ous po­lit­i­cal par­ties rep­re­sented therein would work against that his­toric bas­tion.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the pres­i­den­tial pri­mary sys­tem, first adopted by Florida in 1901, lan­guished in the 1920s, an era of one-party dom­i­nance. As Ed­ward Con­rad Smith pointed out in his Dic­tio­nary of Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics (1924): “At the present time the pres­i­den­tial pri­mary is of lit­tle im­por­tance in de­ter­min­ing what can­di­date will be nom­i­nated.”

Sub­se­quently, the record was the same, with some vic­to­ri­ous nom­i­nees ei­ther not en­ter­ing pri­maries or los­ing most of them, as with Repub­li­cans Her­bert Hoover in 1932, Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight Eisen­hower in 1952. Democrats Ad­lai Steven­son in 1952 and Hu­bert Humphrey in 1968 were nom­i­nated with­out run­ning in any pri­maries.

To be sure, af­ter 1968, both po­lit­i­cal par­ties un­der­took to make re­forms that would make the sys­tem more in­clu­sive. There were still crit­i­cisms: Small states such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire had a sig­nif­i­cant role in pro­vid­ing even­tual win­ners, and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists came up with a slew of changes that were so com­pli­cated as to in­duce headaches, and with fancy names: the grad­u­ated ran­dom sys­tem, ro­tat­ing re­gional plan, an in­ter­re­gional plan and even a na­tional pres­i­den­tial pri­mary.

But the more se­ri­ous mat­ters dealt not with small states ver­sus large states but with the move­ment of many states from the tra­di­tional “closed” pri­mary in which only party mem­bers could vote to the “open” pri­mary per­mit­ting bal­lots to be cast re­gard­less of party af­fil­i­a­tion. And then there’s the “hy­brid” op­tion of states in which non­party af­fil­i­a­tion may or may not grant ac­cess to the bal­lot.

This open­ness men­tal­ity has af­fected Democrats in Congress to an ex­tent that it may cost them the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, no mat­ter who­ever is the pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee. For the long-touted mav­er­ick from Ver­mont, Sen. Bernie San­ders — the long­est serv­ing In­de­pen­dent in con­gres­sional his­tory — has been per­mit­ted to cau­cus with Democrats in re­cent years be­cause they needed his votes. San­ders has not only long bashed Democrats but now gained stature on their com­mit­tee as­sign­ments.

Worse, in the Aug. 14 sen­a­to­rial pri­mary in Ver­mont, San­ders is run­ning as a Demo­crat. When he wins, he’ll de­cline the nom­i­na­tion and run as an In­de­pen­dent — mak­ing it ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble for any Demo­cratic can­di­date to run against him.

And this isn’t the first time San­ders used this of­fen­sive ploy. He did it in 2012 in his sen­a­to­rial elec­tion as well as in 2006. To be sure, he’s so pop­u­lar in Ver­mont he could have whipped any Demo­crat there, but his quest to cherry pick which sides of the po­lit­i­cal party spec­trum he chooses to use at any one mo­ment is de­plorable.

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