Good Bye Boxer; Hello Chaos

It is rare these days when a bit of political news makes my heart leap, but the news that Sen. Barbara Boxer is retiring made my heart leap. Unfortunately, as welcome as her departure from the Senate is, it also presents the Democrats with a conundrum. How do they hold on to that seat in the Senate in 2016?

Sen. Boxer epitomized all the worst trends in Democratic Party politics. She was not just an advocate on women’s issues, which would be fine and even laudable, she became the Ottaviani of women’s issues, enforcing a rigid adherence to the most extreme orthodoxies peddled by NARAL and Emily’s List. Boxer was to the Senate what Valerie Jarrett is to the Obama White House, a reckless ideologue advocating for policies that are bad for the country and, in the long run, bad for the very people they claim to champion. It was never enough for Boxer to oppose pro-life Democrats, she needed to stick her finger in our eye.

Relatedly, Boxer helped cement the influence of single interest groups within the political system at the expense of party authority and, therefore, party responsibility. In this view of politics, one cobbles together diverse groups – women’s groups, environmental groups, immigrants’ rights groups – not by forging a narrative from overarching ideas about governance, but simply checking off the boxes by adhering to whatever positions those groups desire. This approach has left the Democrats seemingly unaware of the concerns of many working class voters who may care about this issue or that but who are primarily concerned that while interest groups may win any given battle, and they may be glad that they won, the system as a whole has been going to hell in a handbasket and the Democratic Party has almost nothing to say.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who won election to the Senate the same year as Boxer, in 1992, became widely respected by her political opponents, which is key to becoming an effective legislator. One can also became an effective legislator by being feared by one’s opponents. Boxer was neither. She was entirely predictable and, just so, there was never much point in reaching out to her. California also produced Governor Jerry Brown, who is an interesting politician, who is not an ideologue, who is not entirely predictable. He won re-election last year with 59.4  percent of the vote, on a day when the Democrats were losing governorships in such deep blue states as Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois. The voters of California not only deserved better than Boxer, they have achieved it. She was the kind of San Francisco Democrat who gave San Francisco Democrats a bad name.

The problem for the Democrats is that in 2010, voters in California approved an open, non-partisan primary system for the state. The top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election. It is a very bad idea, not least because it further weakens the party structure, giving more power to single interest groups. The factionalism of party politics is a problem, to be sure. It is interesting to see how frequently and how forcefully the founding fathers voiced their concerns about partisanship. Yet, our political system fell into a party structure when the ink was not yet dry on the Constitution. In Britain, where the party system first evolved, the greatest governments have been those which, in times of national distress, are all-party governments, isolating the extremes and forging a governing consensus in the center. One thinks of the Godolphin-Marlborough-Harley ministry in the first decade of the 18th century or the Coalition Government that led the UK through World War II. But, these instances were exceptional precisely because the times required an exceptional national response to an external threat. In the main, and certainly in comparison to all the alternatives, a two-party system has served democracy well. The decline in the influence of party leaders in the past fifty years, starting with the Democratic Party reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission after the debacle in Chicago in 1968, has not been good for democracy.

The more immediate concern for the Democrats in California is that the non-partisan primary holds out the possibility that enough Democrats run for the Senate seat, the divide up their share of the electorate and, say, an Hispanic Republican and a well-funded Independent candidate emerge as the top two vote getters in the primary. No Democrat would the general election ballot. That may not yet be a likely scenario but it is not implausible either. There are additional demographic and regional concerns. Latinos are now the backbone of the Democratic Party in California and might want to see one of their own ascend to the Senate. As well, both Boxer and Feinstein are from the Bay Area: Southern California is woefully underrepresented in statewide offices. This is mostly a function of the big donors in the Bay Area allowing candidates from there to outspend their opponents from the LA area.

So, while I am delighted to see Boxer depart the political stage, the Democrats have to negotiate behind the scenes to make sure they do not so divide the primary electorate they have no candidate in the general election. In short, they need some old-style, backroom, probably no longer smoke-filled, politics. I fear that in this age of celebrity everything, the conversation in that room will focus on who has the money and who is sufficiently telegenic, instead of focusing on crafting a political platform that speaks to the need for a new approach to the issues that matter to everyone, like income inequality, rather than the issues that motivate the few. But, it costs nothing to dream, especially in the state that brought us Disneyland.   

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