You may have missed it amid all the hullabaloo surrounding Delaware, but there was another important primary last Tuesday.
The incumbent was a moderate, a pragmatist, someone who could reach across the aisle to work with those who were not traditional allies. He was willing to stand up to extremists and buck his party’s political orthodoxy. His opponent, on the other hand, appealed to the fringes of the party. He allied himself with powerful special-interest groups who poured money and manpower into his campaign. The campaign became increasingly nasty. There were even racial overtones. In the end, voters ignored the incumbent’s solid record of getting things done and tossed him out by a surprisingly large margin.
But this was not another one of those “tea party” uprisings (which are reliably misinterpreted by the mainstream media). It was the Democratic primary for mayor of Washington, D.C.
The incumbent, Adrian Fenty, was certainly no conservative, but he had shown himself willing to stand up to the special interests that have long dominated Democratic politics in this city. Example No. 1 was education. D.C. schools have long been among the nation’s worst, despite extraordinarily high per-pupil expenditures. Fenty and his school chancellor, Michele Rhee, stood up to the teachers’ union, forcing through a merit-pay contract, limiting tenure, and firing nonperforming teachers. And they achieved results: Reading and math scores were up substantially. A school system that just a few years ago didn’t know how many employees or students it had was making real, measurable progress.
Despite increased education spending and the recession, Fenty stuck to a pledge not to raise broad-based taxes. He slashed social spending and cut the city work force. As result, business investment poured into the city, and its population, which had been declining for decades, actually increased as people who had fled to the suburbs moved back.
But Fenty also incurred the enmity of the powerful teachers’ and public-employees’ unions. They rallied to the cause of Fenty’s opponent, city-council chairman Vincent Gray. Together they ran a nasty and racially charged campaign. As was the case in Delaware, this was a closed primary — independents could not vote — and Gray pitched his appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic electorate. With turnout high among the party’s base, Gray won 54–45.
What transforms this from a local tragedy for Washington residents to something bigger is the fact that the unions were apparently able to intimidate the president into silence. Adrian Fenty was the first big city mayor to endorse Barack Obama for president. He was pursuing reforms, especially in education, that the president claims to support. According to local media reports, Fenty personally called the president and asked for his help. In an overwhelmingly African-American city, a word from Obama might have tipped the balance. The word never came, and Fenty was left twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.
The White House now says that the president doesn’t get involved in primaries, something that seems not to have occurred to the administration in the cases of, say, Pennsylvania and Colorado. (Perhaps Obama could have offered Gray a White House job, as he did in a bid to get Joe Sestak out of the race against Arlen Specter.)
In the wake of Gray’s victory, there were no front-page stories about the “civil war” in the Democratic party. You will not see evening newscasts full of worrying about Democratic extremism.
The tea parties are bringing millions of newly energized voters into the political process for the first time. In some ways, the phenomenon is similar to the 2008 Obama campaign in its ability to energize people and excite those who are not otherwise politically engaged. Conversely, the D.C. primary suggests that the Democratic party now is turning its attention to its narrowest base: the unions, the special interests, the left-wing fringe. There has not been much of a civil war in the Democratic party, because there are so few moderate Democrats around.
In the wake of the D.C. primary, there is one less.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.