Wisconsin invented the primary election. Now the Democratic Party, the heir to the state's proud progressive tradition, wants to deny the voters the opportunity to choose their candidate for governor.
Let me make an argument for why that is a bad idea both politically and philosophically.
First some quick background. The apparent choice of party insiders is current Madison school board member Mary Burke. I know Mary. I eagerly supported her for her school board seat. She is a great philanthropist who really cares about kids. She was the moving force behind the beautiful new Boys & Girls Club in the Allied Drive neighborhood and the AVID/TOPS program designed to close the achievement gap in Madison schools.
She also has the business chops that contrast nicely with lifelong public official Scott Walker, who is failing badly in the job-creation department. Burke was an executive in her family's Trek Bicycle company and state commerce secretary under Jim Doyle.
So I understand why party leaders would want her to run. So do I. I just don't want the field to end with Burke. I want there to be lots of candidates. In this case there is strength in numbers.
In a strategic sense, sometimes primaries are good and sometimes they're not. In the case of Tammy Baldwin's race for U.S. Senate, she benefited from not having a primary, while Tommy Thompson had to spend all his money and move so far right that he was off the planet to wrestle the Republican nomination. By the time Tommy figured out what was hitting him, Baldwin had redefined him as "not for us anymore," and it was all over.
But that was a totally different situation. Walker won't have a primary, and he'll have all the money in the world and then some. He'll move to the center and pummel any presumptive nominee from the get-go. That's already happening with Burke as Republicans dig up obscure comments she made to Isthmus years ago.
The better strategy is to have a crowded primary so the Republican smear machine will have to hold its fire until at least the primary date in August 2014.
And aside from strategy, having a good, competitive primary is just the better alternative. It sharpens candidates by putting them through the wringer, which can make them stronger for the general election.
Unless you're a Republican these days. The problem with primaries for mainstream Republicans since the advent of the tea party is that extreme right-wing primary voters make their candidates move so far to the right that they can't get back to the center in time for November, if they survive at all. The GOP has lost Senate seats they should have easily won in places like Indiana and Missouri because hard-right primary voters nominated candidates who couldn't appeal to the more moderate voters in a general election.
The Democrats don't have the same issue on the left. In fact, the main problem for the Democratic Party right now is that it lacks a clear agenda. Its brand is bland. The party seems more concerned about winning elections than standing for anything and as a result, it often does neither.
A primary would spur a needed debate within the party about what it is and where it's going. I don't like what the current Republican Party stands for, but there's no doubt about what that is. The Republicans are for tax breaks for the rich, an end to sensible regulations that protect workers and the environment, and 19th-century social policies (on a good day).
And the Democrats? Well, you hear some vague talk about "working families," but otherwise the party's main argument seems to be that it is not as crazy as the other guys. This is true but not all that inspiring.
What I would like to see is a candidate or two with a clear and specific liberal agenda to contrast with a candidate or two with a more moderate approach. Invest in education. Restore a progressive income tax. Repeal the constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality. Get serious about gun control. Protect our environment. Etc.
That kind of talk makes party elites uncomfortable because they know that touching issues like taxes and guns runs negative with some blue-collar voters they hope to sway into their column.
I can't argue that it shouldn't make them nervous, except that the Democratic candidates should also be for compromise. I don't begrudge the Republicans their principles except for the new tea party principle that all compromise is treason. Government works only when there is give and take, but the tea party extremists want it to fail. Most Wisconsinites, like most Americans, want their government to solve problems. That's a Democratic Party advantage even if their candidate shades to the left of most general-election voters.
So, do the Democrats want to continue to try to win elections by not being as out there as the other guys, only to do nothing with power once they gain it? Or do they want to stand for something, including the necessary compromises that move us forward?
Nominating a candidate for governor in a backroom won't get us that answer.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.