Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the potential rise of Democratic primary challenges

Last week, I posted this, arguing that Bernie Sanders is not just the left-wing analog to the Tea Party, but arguably more "Tea Party" than Ted Cruz.  The current political news emphasizes that point, but with a fun twist.

Bernie Sanders is now advocating primary challenges for Democratic Members of Congress.  More than a delusional and futile attempt to wrest the nomination from Hillary at this point, that actually has the potential to move the Democratic Party, and hence maybe policy, to the left.

The logic of the primary challenge is that the voters in a Democratic primary are more liberal than the voters in a general electorate.  If Democratic candidates are moving to the center to try to win the general election, then Sanders and the left-wing Tea Party he wants to build can make it a self-defeating strategy.  Move to the center, and you won't even get the nomination.  Now, Bernie and his followers don't like having it pointed out to them that they are ideologically extreme, but I'm a social scientist, and I deal in facts, not rhetoric (see my comments on the topic here).

This is where the Tea Party comparison becomes truly clear.  Since 2010, the conventional wisdom has been that the Tea Party has pulled the Republican Party to the right because any Republican legislator who fails to go along "gets primaried," and loses the Republican nomination.  How often has this really happened?  Three times total, at the national level.  From every election cycle combined.  And the third case is somewhat questionable.  Yes, that few.  Bob Inglis (formerly a Representative from South Carolina), Dick Lugar (former Senator from Indiana), and maybe Eric Cantor (formerly the House Majority Leader, and Representative from Virginia).  That last case was marginal because Cantor was a pretty hard-line conservative, who just made some rhetorical concessions on immigration.  He also failed to take the challenge from David Brat seriously, and hence failed to campaign.  Still, that is at most three cases.  No, Robert Bennett from Utah doesn't count because he didn't lose a primary.  His party yanked his name from the ballot at a convention in a procedure that only works in the unique process in Utah.

So, Republicans aren't really in any significant danger of losing a primary.  The risk of losing a general election for extremism is far higher.  But, they don't necessarily know that.  Even if the fear of getting primaried is irrational, it can still motivate Republicans in Congress to move to the right.

Which brings us to Bernie Sanders.  He has begun the process of encouraging primary challenges to Democratic incumbents.  With whom is he starting?  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  And that tells you something about Sanders.  Former South Carolina Senator and now Heritage Foundation head, Jim DeMint was an early proponent of "primarying" his own colleagues, but he did it on ideological grounds.  DeMint was a purist.  He wanted to purify his party of ideological concessions based on the premise that you move policy to the right by moving a party and hence the national dialog.

Sanders, though, is starting with Wasserman-Schultz.  Where is she, ideologically?  For that, we turn, as ever, to the NOMINATE scores, constructed by Keith Poole & Howard Rosenthal.  These scores put everyone in Congress on a scale from -1 to +1, with negative scores indicating liberalism and positive scores indicating conservatism.  Wasserman-Schultz's score in the 113th Congress?  (That's last term, for the non-Congress-junkies).  -0.363.  That's way right of Sanders, but Sanders is an extremist.  How does Wasserman-Schultz fit within the party as a whole?  Well, the Democratic median in the House that term was -0.383.  Wasserman-Schultz is statistically indistinguishable from the party median.  She ain't no moderate.  Pretty much half the Democratic House caucus is to the right of her.

Why is Sanders going after her?  She is the head of the Democratic National Committee, and a Hillary Clinton supporter.  This isn't about ideology.  This is about Sanders and his insistence that his opposition is intrinsically illegitimate, which is exactly why I equated him with the Tea Party in my previous post.  He refuses to acknowledge that he has simply lost the nomination to Hillary.  Instead, he insists that the nomination has been stolen from him, and for that, he needs someone to blame.  For that, he turns to the head of the DNC.  After all, why else would his attempt to buy the nomination fail?

Note, then, the difference between Sanders and Ron Paul (or Rand).  Ron Paul was only marginally a Republican.  He even ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee.  He then began running for the Republican nomination as a way to pull the Republican Party to the right on economic issues.  For Ron Paul, it was truly an ideological battle.

Sanders could do the same, if he cared as much about policy and the structure of the party as Ron Paul.  The fact that he is going after Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, though, tells you something about his real priorities.  For Sanders, this is personal.

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