I like Phil Keisling. A lot. He’s always been a straight shooter, supportive of schools, a good public servant. I’ve always supported him.
I like Charlie Ringo. A lot. He’s been a tireless advocate for workers and the environment. I phone banked for him in his race against Bill Witt.
But I don’t like either Phil or Charlie’s apparent and misguided obsessions with reducing the partisanship of our state. Phil suggests an open primary, in which anyone can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation. Charlie wants a non-partisan legislature. Charlie’s idea is misguided and Phil’s is downright dangerous.
Now before I go further, I know some out there will say "Of course Marc is against these ideas – he was Chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon." I don’t oppose these ideas because I was a party chair. I was a party chair because I believe in the power of organizations, particularly of parties, to shape ideas and hold candidates accountable.
Let’s start with the idea of a non-partisan legislature. Charlie believes this will calm the fevered tensions in the Capitol and allow for more productivity. Sorry Charlie, all that will do is drive those partisan divides underground, where they will be harder to trace. Do you really think that caucuses will vanish? They may be called the "progressive" and the "conservative" caucus, but they will still be there. Karen Minnis isn’t going to suddenly give Carolyn Tomei the time of day because they aren’t officially sporting their elephant and donkey name tags. Take a look at the one non-partisan state legislature in the country: Nebraska. The Omaha and Lincoln Democrats (at least the real Democrats) are still frozen out of committee chairmanships, still caucusing in the men’s bathroom.
Being non-partisan won’t just fail to change the legislature’s behavior, it will confuse the voters. Voters, talking heads aside, do know what the parties stand for in broad and principled terms: Democrats are for the right to choose, the protection of civil liberties and the environment, the right to organize. Republicans are for eliminating most services (except farm subsidies), the erosion of the church-state boundary, and controlling women’s choices. Simply having that tag on you helps a voter identify who they will vote for. And, let’s face it, few of them spend a lot of time on the down-ticket, so that works in Democracy’s favor. Party identification may be shorthand, but it’s effective shorthand.
Without parties in the legislature, state parties would cease to have real meaning, as most local offices are already non-partisan. Other than unions, who would have the ability to collect funds and workers to direct to critical campaigns, and now you’d be forced to spend more on simple partisan identification, leaving less money to get across more responsible and complex messages.
But if Charlie’s idea is short-sighted, Phil’s is nothing if not looking to the long term, specifically to Keisling for Governor ‘10. Mind you, I may well be on that bandwagon when the time comes, but this isn’t the road it should take.
Open primaries serve one purpose: to increase the power of the moderate, muddled middle. It allows the GOP in Portland to swarm to the Democratic primary ands nominate a bland moderate so that liberals lose clout in the legislature, and allows Democrats in some GOP seats to do the reverse. Now Phil, a card carrying DLC member, may like that. I don’t.
What’s wrong with progressive ideas? If you believe in them, why moderate? I’m not saying that you don’t have to bow to reality, count to 16 and 31, and get something done in Salem, but you don’t have to eliminate the sources of great ideas in the process. What this idea says is "I don’t trust my own party members."
There are two ways to win elections. One is to move to the middle. The other is to articulate your ideas with vision, clarity and passion and convince the middle to move to you. I’ve always believed in the latter course.
These ideas will have Democrats beating up on Democrats. That’s what Al From of the DLC has long advocated – that he had to rid the Democratic Party of the liberals before he could take on the Republicans. I don’t think Phil or Charlie thinks that way, but that’s the practical effect of their suggestions: internal ideological cleansing.
If we become a "non-partisan" party, we will be devoid of voices, devoid of passion, devoid of meaningful ideas and opposition. We will be Republican lite. And, when faced between the real thing or a pale imitation, the voters will pick the real thing every time.