A lesson in democracy from Utah

It would sadden Ted Kennedy.  And that’s another reason why Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is not having an easy time getting renominated by his party.

Kennedy and Hatch were bipartisan bosom buddies and Hatch’s speech at the tribute to his late colleague was warm, funny, and touching.  Theirs was a friendship that crossed the partisan divide, a model for the principled compromises that move public policy.

Today Kennedy is gone and Hatch is in the fight of his political life, forced into an unseemly primary fight by Utah Republicans.  He doesn’t want to suffer the fate of his former colleague Bob Bennett, who was unceremoniously fired by his party.  That decision in 2010 brought a significant amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the professional political class and those invested in its permanence.  What might be bad for the folks in Washington is, however, useful for democracy.

The dethroning of Bennett and challenges to Hatch and his colleague from Indiana, Richard Lugar, has become a cause célèbre among those worried about the tone of politics and the ability of political leaders to engage in political compromise.  But the reaction also suggests an unwillingness to appreciate democratic life.  Bennett, Hatch, Lugar might all be everything that their DC colleagues and commentators claim: noncontroversial, friendly with political opponents, willing to forge compromise, genteel, policy workhorses.  They are individuals of substantive accomplishments and are titans of the Senate.

But Bennett was also running for his fourth term to serve a total of 24 years in the Senate despite a pledge to serve only two.  He got caught on the wrong side of a variety of political issues such as TARP and his health care compromise.  His party opted to find a nominee that more clearly reflected the principles of the Utah Republicans.  A healthy party system does exactly that.

Hatch and Lugar were both first elected to the Senate in 1976 and they are also facing the winds of change by a party absorbing the Tea Party into its ranks.

If it is true that our political life is enhanced by good people like Bennett, Hatch, and Lugar who seek to serve the national interest as they understand it, it is equally true that our democracy is strengthened by political parties that have principled positions on important public policy issues and with citizens who use the processes at their disposal to affect political change.

It has been a long time since political parties were truly the big tent organizations that contained within them contradictory threads—truly liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats live on in the history of intra party squabbles of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Liberals found their home in the Democratic Party.  MoveOn.org is the modern Franklin Roosevelt seeking to purge its ranks of conservative elements.  Utah Republicans follow in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater’s supporters and Ronald Reagan’s insurgent candidacy in 1976—seeking to make the GOP more populist and conservative, without worrying about the inherent difficulties of doing both simultaneously.  It is certainly ironic that Utah Republicans drove out a very conservative Senator in Bennett to find someone more amenable but it was not so much his conservatism as particular votes that estranged him from his party.

Those expressing astonishment over this turn of events have scolded Utah Republicans for their anger over TARP, suggesting that Bennett’s vote was a principled one designed to protect the stability of the financial system.  Perhaps it was.  But why shouldn’t voters harbor continued frustration over the political class’s inability to properly exercise oversight of that system and then hand over enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars to bail it out.   If Bennett helped to save the financial system, taxpayers are still allowed to express anger at the whole situation.  Expressing that anger at the polls is precisely the type of democratic accountability that a modern democracy should respect and honor.

It is also claimed that Bennett’s defeat and the challenges to Hatch and Lugar continue to embolden the Tea Party movement and its drive for ideological purity.  While there is some truth to the claim, this effort it not nearly as ubiquitous as the punditry believes.  For every Marco Rubio in Florida (a tea party favorite who beat the establishment Governor Charlie Crist) there is a Mark Kirk in Illinois, an establishment candidate who took over President Obama’s former Senate seat.  Tea party victories in one state were met with defeats elsewhere ensuring democratic competition and a diversity of ideas in Congress.

Clearly some of the foundations of our current politics are on shaky ground.  When Massachusetts sent Scott Brown to Washington to fill a seat long-held by Ted Kennedy and Utah Republicans may give his friend Orrin Hatch the cold shoulder, the predictability of our political life in Washington unfolds.   But at it does, democracy may just be enhanced.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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