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By Jay Cost

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Stay Classy, Jim Bunning! (or, Why I Hate the Party Primary)

Josh Kraushaar of Politico noted the following this morning (h/t Hot Air):

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), already in political trouble for 2010, didn't help matters any over the weekend.

At a Lincoln Day Dinner speech over the weekend, Bunning predicted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer in nine months, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The paper reports that Bunning reiterated his support of conservative judges, saying "that's going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg...has cancer."

"Bad cancer. The kind you don't get better from," Bunning went on. "Even though she was operated on, usually nine months is the longest that anybody would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

This item must have Republicans everywhere groaning. After all, the Senate landscape is not too favorable to the GOP in 2010. Because 2004 was a good year for them, they have to play a lot of defense in 2010. Kentucky was one of the most Republican-leaning states in 2008, but Republicans are worried about holding Bunning's seat because this kind of stuff is par for the course with him.

In fact, Republican leaders are so concerned about Bunning that they are actually thinking about sponsoring a primary run against him. Krashaar continues:

News of his comments comes as Bunning continues to take fire from the very Senate campaign committee tasked to help his re-election. PolitickerKY, a Kentucky-based political website, reported that state Senate President David Williams met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to explore a primary campaign against Bunning.

The report suggested that operatives of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were working to assist Williams in a potential primary campaign -- and that McConnell's pollster is commissioning a survey to assess Williams' viability against Bunning.

This might not be an easy feat. Primary campaigns like this are typically expensive, and they often fail to oust the incumbent. See, for instance, Don Young's victory in his primary battle last cycle. What's more, if the Kentucky GOP cannot induce Williams to jump into the fight - or find somebody else who could raise the cash and seem like a viable alternative - Bunning might waltz through his primary, just as Ted Stevens did that year.

This is one big reason I do not understand why partisans on both sides suffer the primary process. It has become one of many mechanisms that effectively guarantee incumbents will be on the general election ballot. What this means, in turn, is that the party usually has to tolerate guys like Don Sherwood, Stevens, and Bunning. There is no "low cost" way for Republicans to hold their incumbents accountable, which means only the Democrats do. And the same goes with Democrats when their incumbents behave badly.

Simply put, primaries are good for politicians, bad for the parties, and therefore bad for the tens of millions of people who sympathize with one party or the other. For all the talk that I hear from partisans about keeping their leaders accountable, I hardly hear any discussion about the primaries - and how inefficient they are at keeping them in line. Once a politician wins election, it becomes much more difficult for the party to make him responsible to the party. And in the case of a guy like Bunning, most Republicans have probably been reduced to praying that he'll just drop out - that's how little power they have over their elected officials.

It wasn't always like this. The parties used to control nominations via the convention process. This was one innovation of the Jacksonian party system. The problem, of course, was that the nomination process was captured, then corrupted, by oligarchic "machines." As the late, great V.O. Key once put it:

The convention system was susceptible to control and management [by small cliques of men working in concert toward a common end], and party organizations and factions soon set about to determine the outcome of the representative process within the party.

The solution, instituted starting around the turn of the last century, was the primary system. Progressive reformers believed that more democracy was the cure to this corruption. The problem, in my opinion, is that the progressive reformers didn't just kill the disease plaguing the party organizations. They killed the party organizations, too. And indeed, Key himself found evidence of this. In districts with primaries where one party had a modest, but not overwhelming advantage, Key noticed that the out-party had a tendency to wither and die, so that it couldn't provide a serious challenge when it had a real chance. The reason? Eliminating the convention process eliminated a big reason for the party to exist and maintain itself in the district. So, it fizzled.

And, of course, changes in the way campaigns work created a problem with the primaries that nobody could have seen coming. The move to a mass media campaign meant that the race for office was largely determined by the race for dollars. Combine that with the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold), and you get the following, perverse result. To defeat a pantload like Bunning in the primary, you have to raise an ungodly sum of cash, but you have to find many sources of money because of the extreme restrictions placed on campaign donations. These restrictions inherently favor incumbents who, being in Washington and knowing lots of the "right" people, can cobble together millions of dollars based upon modest $5,000 contributions. This is Congress' idea of campaign "reform," which always seems to favor congressional incumbents! A strange coincidence, isn't it?

For the life of me, I don't know why party activists put up with this nonsense. Sure, our politics is mostly determined by the Republican-Democrat cleavage. But there are other cleavages as well, like the divide between partisans and party candidates, which has a lot in common with the principal-agent problem (or, how can the principal ensure that his agent behaves responsibly?). Partisans everywhere have an interest in exerting more control over the incumbents who have the privilege of carrying the party banner into the general election, and yet they have allowed those incumbents to establish rules that work for them. It seems to me that if the party had better mechanisms to watch its incumbents, and hold them accountable before the other side has a chance to, they'd be much better off.

Yet the public discussion is essentially bereft of talk of reforming our electoral institutions. I hear lots of people complain about guys like Bunning, but I hardly hear anybody talk about changing the rules as a way to solve the problem. I'm not saying a wide scale return to the convention process is the best idea - though frankly I think it has some merit - but I do think some changes to the process are necessary. What is needed is a way to make it less costly and less risky for the party to monitor and hold accountable its own elected representatives.

Scholars of the contemporary American party like to say that it's "in service" to its candidates, especially its incumbents. Shouldn't it be the other way around, at least for jackasses like Bunning?

-Jay Cost