Candidates always say that this election is the most important one in voters' lives. Everybody on the right is saying that about this year's midterm elections; the left said it with equal fervor about the 2008 presidential race. They also said so in 2006 and 2004.
No doubt George Washington and Abraham Lincoln felt that their elections were the most important ones, likewise Franklin Pierce and Howard Taft.
What you almost never hear is party primary elections cast as "the most important." Yet primaries are every bit as vital if not more so.
For as long as we have followed politics, there have been two competing and opposite complaints about the quality of candidates on offer for election. Ordinary voters in our observation almost never go to the polls to vote for somebody; they grit their teeth and plump for the lesser of two evils. They are voting against someone rather than for someone.
There have been a couple of recent exceptions: many millions of people voted for Barack Obama, or, at least, they voted for what they thought he symbolized; and some decades past, many people voted for Ronald Reagan, at least at his 1984 re-election.
Otherwise, probably more people voted against Al Gore, John Kerry, and Mike Dukakis than for the George Bushes; likewise, people voted against Bush and Bob Dole more than voted for Bill Clinton.
Why? Because none of the candidates on offer really represents them.
The far left constantly grouses that their candidates are too centrist; remember Howard Dean's claim to be from "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party"? As far left as Mr. Obama has governed, it's not far enough for his base: he didn't fight for a "public option", the "banksters" are still breathing free air, Gitmo is still there, and we still have troops on the ground outside the United States. The same, of course, is true on the right, as the Tea Party successes make clear.
Voters want stark contrasts and clearly different choices to pick from, as Ronald Reagan well knew:
Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?
Yet from the elites, we hear the need for "bipartisanship," "centrism," and a love of "moderates." Supposedly, what's most desirable is politicians who are willing to "cross the aisle" and work with the opposite party to "get things done."
This woolly sentiment presupposes two false assumptions: 1) that for government to try to "get things done" can accomplish actual good for the country, and 2) that the things our elites want to do are the right things to do.
Or, put another way, that our elites know what they are doing and should be left alone to do it. Unfortunately for ordinary citizens, the entire history of modern governance proves this to be utterly and profoundly false, from the collapsed command economies of the Soviet Bloc to the gross malpractices of Britain's National Health Service to, well, darn near everything the American government tries to do.
There is another way. For all that many, especially on the left, like to claim that we no longer live in a democracy but rather a corporatocracy or imperial aristocracy, we still enjoy the forms of a representative democracy and they do have power. It is possible - difficult, yes, but possible - for an unknown challenger to overthrow a corrupt and arrogant veteran politician, particularly in party primaries.
We've just seen Christine O'Donnell, a no-name opposed by almost everyone "respectable," defeat decades-senior Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware.
On the other side, earlier this year, Alvin Greene beat city councilman Vic Rawl as Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina, despite being unemployed and spending almost nothing on his campaign.
The great and the good sneered, but why? Millions of Americans are unemployed and penniless; the wealthy, secure members of the Senate have really no idea how it feels and provably no ideas at all how to fix it. Mr. Greene may have no good answers either, but when he says "I feel your pain," every bankrupt know that he truly does. How is that bad?
On both sides of the aisle, voters are sick to death of moderates who go along with everybody else. In the general election, they are used to only three wretched choices: Tweedledum, Tweedledumber, or throw your vote away on a no-hoper.
In a primary election, things couldn't be more different. No-namers can run and, this year, are winning. True-blue conservatives and far-lefties can run and defeat moderates.
What could be better than a general-election campaign between a true conservative and an open, avowed socialist? The American people deserve the opportunity to have the differences clearly presented and a choice fairly made.
Barack Obama governs as a socialist or even a Marxist, but he certainly didn't run as one - he ran as a centrist, or maybe a center-leftist. As Americans have realized that they bought something other than what was advertised to them, his popularity has plummeted. If he'd won on a platform of nationalized-everything, tax-and-spend, and massive regulatory statism, his policies along those lines wouldn't have such a damaging effect on his poll numbers.
Similarly, a stealth-conservative is bound to encounter problems governing. Wouldn't it be better to run and win with a clear platform of small-government conservatism and then deliver exactly what you promised?
For a long time now, Americans have paid little attention to their candidates and have tolerated being lied to and cheated. The Tea Party is trying to end this, demanding that elected officials say what the people want them to say, and then actually do it.
Given that it takes six years to replace all the senators, that takes time and staying power. Will Tea Partiers continue to heavily fund their nominees through to final victory? Will the Tea Party stay glaring over the shoulders of its newly victorious champions? In 2012, will rewards and punishments be issued according to votes cast with visible effect?
The Obama team thought that "ObamaGirl" and her fellow members of "Obama for America" would stay politically engaged forever:
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed. [emphasis added]
Yes, well, that doesn't seem to have worked at all as intended. To the extent that young Democrats are involved and informed, they aren't Democrats anymore:
The college vote is up for grabs this year - to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago, when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama. Though many students are liberals on social issues, the economic reality of a weak job market has taken a toll on their loyalties: far fewer 18- to 29-year-olds now identify themselves as Democrats compared with 2008.
Obama's Democrats hope that the college students tune out completely. The Tea Party is hoping that they become activists for the other side instead. The starker the contrasts, the more harsh the fight between opposing views, the more likely people will tune in, and the more hope for our country there will be.
Just because it's "just" a primary, doesn't mean it's not vitally important. If a few more people had voted in the Republican presidential primaries in 2008... history could have been quite different.