Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Conservative Delegate or a Conservative Trustee?

A week from today, Kansas will be holding its primary elections (the complete rundown of candidates is here). State-wide, most of the races in this off-year election season are forgone conclusions; in a state that leans strongly Republican, with large (and well-funded) cohorts of both Christian traditionalists and fiscal libertarians supporting conservative candidates and causes, there is basically no doubt that the Republicans will dominate the state legislature, that our next governor will be retiring U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, and that our newest senator will be either Representative Todd Tiarht or Representative Jerry Moran, both of whom have been drenching the airwaves with negative ads, in a desperate effort to move every possible registered Republican voter in the state away from their (equally conservative) opponents and into their camp. I salute the Democrats going up against these machines for their citizenship and their optimism, but I confess I'm not really paying these races much attention.

The one place where I do see some genuinely interesting small-d democratic possibilities--that is, electoral choices that could really make a difference in government--is in the four House district races. Not all of them, of course. Despite a crowded Republican field, with the potential for infighting, standing against a single Democratic candidate, the first district in western Kansas is about as Republican it's possible to be, so there's unlikely to be any action there once the primary is over. In the second district, though, you've had the seat go back and forth between Republicans and Democrats lately, by relatively narrow margins. In the third district, you have a relatively popular Democrat retiring, with his wife running in the Democratic primary to replace him, and a large number of Republicans jostling for the chance to run against her. And then, there's my home district here in Wichita, the fourth.

The Democratic primary, assuming the well-funded (and smart, and admirable--I've met and like the guy) Raj Goyle and his people do their job well, should be cake-walk for him. It's on the Republican side, though, where most of my attention has been drawn. We've got a couple of very big-spending and well-connected heavyweights driving the polls, and then three reputable candidates nipping at their heels. With only a week to go, it's unlikely that much could change to alter the enormous advantages in name recognition and early voting that the two leaders have piled up...but something about the race really stirred the goo-goo part of my heart. One of the trailing primary candidates, Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf, broke with her party to help pass a truly responsible bit of legislation: an admittedly less-than-brilliantly-conceived, but nonetheless absolutely necessary, sales tax increase to prevent our public education system from having to suffer even further cuts to salaries, services, and more. In making that vote (which even the almost-certain Democratic candidate in this House race, Kansas Representative Goyle, wasn't willing to support), she did something difficult: she faithfully executed the difficult work which her election, in part, had entrusted to her. I like that, and it got me thinking about the different theories of representation, and how the representative story her career tells differs dramatically from what the one implied by her rivals for the Republican nomination.

So anyway, it inspired me to write up a column, and submit it to the Wichita Eagle. They've run stuff by me before, but at this point I don't think my piece will see the light of day. So here it is. Enjoy, if you feel so inclined.

**************

For many people, the upcoming primary contest to determine who the Republican nominee for the 4th Congressional district will be isn't much of a contest at all. While polls vary, the overall trend is clear: Wink Hartman and Mike Pompeo appear to be far better known, with many more vocal supporters, than any of their rivals. In fact, their level of popular support is about twice that of their nearest rival, Jean Schodorf.

This doesn't surprise me. Election after election has taught that if you have the money to buy signs and television time, to recruit talent and volunteers, to rent facilities and hold rallies, then you can usually drive the contest results. According to campaign finance reports, Hartman and Pompeo have together spent over $1.3 million on getting themselves elected, whereas Schodorf had spent less than $30,000, with other candidates spending even less. Media attention follows the money, polls follow media attention, polls attract more money, and so on.

In the midst of this seemingly inevitable process, though, there is always the possibility of surprises. Most of the time, if such an upset occurs, it will be because something or someone changed the narrative of the contest, and voters unexpectedly start thinking differently. The narrative which Hartman and Pompeo are banking on, however, appears to be a pretty stable one. It is a narrative about who is the most “conservative” candidate in the race. Into this narrative, recognizable by the way in which each candidate reiterates their position on numerous tried--and true conservative points–smaller government, lower taxes, military strength, protected borders, opposition to abortion, etc.--the two main candidates have poured all their efforts.

In political science, there is an oft-repeated distinction made between two models of representation. Voters may support a candidate because they believe she or he will be a better delegate, or because they believe she or he will be a better trustee. The “delegate” model sees the point of representation as electing someone who believes exactly as you do: since you can’t personally go to Topeka or Washington, DC, the aim is to elect a politician who mirrors your preferred views as much as possible, so as to directly take your place in the halls of government. Hence, what is important is to run down the checklist of beliefs, and to match oneself to a candidate as closely as possible.

The “trustee” model, on the other hand, assumes that, since government involves complex issues and less-than-ideal choices, the point is to elect someone you trust. Since the difficult work of government is to be entrusted to someone on behalf of all the voters within a particular district, state, or nation, you need to make sure that someone is responsible. Agreement on beliefs is important, but not an absolute, since while all voters have their preferences, government decision-making will never satisfy every preference, and compromises will often be necessary.

It’s interesting--and also not particularly surprising--to see the leaders of the Republican primary race competing furiously to prove themselves to be the most perfect conservative delegate. Our national political culture today mostly revolves around various scandals and controversies, not the hard work of governing, and so most voters end up looking to candidates, wanting to learn about their positions on such controversial issues. Certainly Hartman and Pompeo do not disappoint. Their websites are filled with references to defending “family values,” “small business values,” “American values,” and more. All good things, of course, but also rather broad, ideological things. Actual governing specifics and recommendations are not in much evidence.

The Schodorf campaign, underfunded as it may be, appears to be following a different narrative. When asked about “Obamacare,” Schodorf has talked carefully about what she dislikes about the health care reform law, but also what she likes about it. Her website lists specifically about what she has done, and what she would do, about Social Security, Medicare, agriculture, and more. She has defended her support of the recent sales tax increase as the responsible thing to do, if Kansas didn’t want to face even more cuts in public education. In short, Schodorf is presenting herself as a conservative candidate with a record of wisely caring for the public trust.

As the general elections for 2010 approach it is easy to suppose that what we are seeing is grand referendum on President Obama and the Democratic party. If such is the case, then perhaps local and state government issues don’t matter too much; what matters is getting one’s views on these broad, ideological issues heard in Washington DC. And in that case, Hartman and Pompeo are right to compete to be named the most dependable conservative delegate to be sent to the nation’s capital (after all, in the Senate Republican primary race, Tiahrt and Moran are doing the same).

But the truth, of course, is that even in the midst of nation-wide struggles over ideas, government still has work that needs to be done: among other things, teachers still need to be paid. To be sure, no serious candidate ever presents themselves solely as either a delegate or a trustee, and no voter would think solely in one way or another. But of all those Republicans running in the 4th Congressional district, right now only one seems to be attempting to follow more than just the simple delegate narrative. Former Republican senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker has noticed that. Before next Tuesday, I wonder if anyone else will.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said.