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Fear the Cliff, Not the Primary

We’re told members of the House Republican Conference would vote for President Barack Obama’s offer to avert the fiscal cliff, but many are afraid of a primary challenge in 2014. Former GOP Chairman Michael Steele has bluntly stated that if not for fear of primary challenges, a deal could be struck in 24 hours.

As someone who has devoted a lot of time thinking about primaries and their role in our electoral system, let me help unpack the dubious, undemocratic assumptions stowed away in this case of conventional wisdom.

First, I assume that members are opposed to a tax increase because they believe it is the wrong policy for the country, not because they fear for their jobs. In my experience, most members of Congress are committed to voting in a manner they believe is best for the nation.

The conventional wisdom is that members of Congress fear contested elections. But why do we unquestioningly accept this assertion? It’s like saying a doctor is afraid of blood or a lifeguard is afraid of water. It comes with the territory: Elections are part of the job of holding office in our democratic republic.

And elections are supposed to be competitive, so why should there be a problem with contested primaries? After all, four out of five House members represent reliably Democratic or Republican districts, so the primary is the only real election they could possibly face.

Our system of representative government was founded on regular, competitive, multicandidate elections. If members of Congress are afraid of a primary challenge, they are afraid of the way our system is supposed to work. And if these elected officials are making the right decision for the nation, why should they fear explaining that decision to their constituents?

There is also an elitist condescension at work here: Congress could get something done if not for those (tea party) upstarts who actually have the nerve to put one of their own on the ballot.

The logical, though absurd, conclusion is that we should get rid of primaries (or for that matter, all elections) so lawmakers could do their jobs.

It sounds ludicrous when stated openly. But that’s the system we have de facto in Congress now. Safe districts render general elections moot, while high barriers to entry discourage most primary challenges.

Instead of blaming elections for gridlock, we need more, not fewer, contested primaries to fix the governance problem in Washington. Men and women unafraid to vigorously compete against other candidates in a free marketplace of ideas will make better representatives than those who, sheltered from the rough and tumble, have grown flabby, feeble and fearful.

These representatives will be closer to the founders’ ideal of citizen-legislators. Tempered in regular battle, armed with the courage of their convictions and fortified with the confidence of the electorate, they will be better equipped to do what is right, unafraid of inevitable judgment on Election Day.

Leo Linbeck III is president and CEO of Aquinas Companies and founder of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a nonpartisan super PAC active in House primaries.

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