Archived Opinion

Changing primaries could help system

Changing primaries could help system

By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist

Every member of Congress is required to swear loyalty to the Constitution, not to the president. But most of the Republicans seem to have it the wrong way. They’ve debased themselves to Donald Trump so thoroughly that you have to wonder when, if ever, they will remember their oaths. Would they let him disregard the results of the next election should he lose it?

That would be as essentially unconstitutional as upholding his “emergency” order to spend money on the border wall or anything else the Congress specifically rejected. But Mark Meadows and most of the other Republicans in the House voted to let Trump get away with doing just that. So much for “conservative principles.”

Pump them full of truth serum and most would probably admit that they know it’s wrong, even dangerous, but they can’t afford to abandon their president for fear of the wrath of his hard-core voters. They might try to rationalize that he’s good for their party, which begs the question of how bad he is for the country.

“He serves his party best who serves his country best,” said President Rutherford B. Hayes. But that was long before Fox “News” and Twitter.

Trump’s GOP toadies rationalize that they have a very real fear of being dumped in the party primaries if they go against their dear leader. That may be true, but it begs another question: Is public office worth the price of personal disgrace? Of undermining and devaluing the Constitution?

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Then there’s Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior senator. He announced — in a Washington Post op ed, of all places — that he would vote against the “emergency.” That promptly drew primary opposition threats from some of North Carolina’s Twilight Zone Republicans. Tillis’ choice of the medium for his message appears to have upset them as much the vote itself. As the Lee County GOP chair put it, “It looks like you’re putting yourself in opposition to the president.” 

That didn’t stop Barry Goldwater when it was time to tell Richard Nixon he had to go. 

Skeptics say, of course, that Tillis figures he’s less likely to lose a primary than next year’s general election. Since he defeated incumbent Senator Kay Hagan, the Democrats have elected a governor, an attorney general and a Supreme Court justice and broken the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly. They’re on a roll and Tillis knows it. To vote against Trump on anything would give him a little bit of cover with the independents, if not with the Democrats. In his case, it’s probably worth the risk of being “primaried,” though it would take a lot more than the issue of the wall “emergency” to have Democrats singing kumbaya with him. Tillis’ record on recommending and confirming far-right judges — as with the Thomas Farr nomination that it took another Republican to block — is dreadful. Only four members of Congress have gotten more help from the NRA. 

“Tillis is continuing to do what he’s always done — present himself to the public as a modern, affable and seemingly reasonable conservative, while at the same time doing virtually everything in his power to advance the agenda of the far right” wrote Rob Schofield in The Progressive Pulse, a North Carolina blog. 

But for whatever reason, Tillis is one of the few Republicans who’s on the proper side of Trump’s spurious “emergency.” Others would be too, if they didn’t have the excuse of possible primary opposition.

Primary elections, once seen as a progressive reform, have become the most polarizing force in American politics. It’s because primaries tend to be dominated by the more extreme wings in both major parties. That’s how North Carolina got Rep. Mark Meadows and why New York has Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It wouldn’t be possible or even advisable to get rid of the primaries. But there is a way to make them a healthy force rather than a destructive one.

That’s to replace the separate party primaries with the so-called “top two” system, best known for versions of it that California and Louisiana use. Everyone runs, regardless of party, on the same ballot. The two leading candidates advance to the general election.

On occasion both will be from the same party, to the despair of the other party’s professionals. But it means also that every voter gets a meaningful say in the outcome. That’s more than can be said now of today’s general elections, especially those in gerrymandered districts. The broader the base of voters, the less that any candidate has to gain — and the more to lose — by catering to the extremes rather than to the middle. 

If the Republicans truly resented being primaried, they’d be pushing for top-two reform. Their failure to do so means that the primary system is just another convenient excuse for acting like cheap politicians rather than as patriots. 

(Martin Dyckman is a former journalist who has written several books on Florida politics. He lives in Western North Carolina. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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