The two-party system under which our country operates has some advantages, but one overwhelming disadvantage: Too often it puts bad people in office. The rise of independent voters, those who decline to state affiliation, helps overcome the two-party flaw, but often there are not enough independents to make a difference.
Next month, voters in San Diego’s 50th District will have a chance to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of our two-party system when they elect a member of Congress to succeed Randy Cunningham, who turned out to be a crook. As usual, the primaries reduced the June special election to the usual suspects: The Democrat is Francine Busby; the Republican Brian Bilbray.
Normally, Republicans win in this now-reconfigured district, which is dominated by Republican voters. How else could Cunningham – known to be vainglorious, dimwitted and sleazy even before he was exposed as a crook – have won so easily and so often? Cunningham was a perfect demonstration of the central two-party system flaw: the tendency among many voters to vote party, not candidate.
Despite a handful of small parties – Greens, Libertarians, Peace and Freedoms, etc. -ours is a classic two-party system because one of the Big Two always wins in November, no matter whom is nominated. The small parties garner their one or two percents, but the most they can hope for is to be spoilers, like Ralph Nader, who gave us George W. Bush and his now-imploded administration.
Two-party systems have the virtue of providing government stability. Since only two parties ever win, one will have the majority, the other the minority, and the country will never be governed by unstable coalitions such as exist in multi-party democracies such as Italy or Israel. But the virtue of stability, especially in a presidential system such as ours, fails to outweigh the flaw of producing too many bad candidates.
How was Cunningham, whose outstanding characteristic was venality, able to win election after election in this well-educated, affluent and presumably politically sophisticated district? Part of the answer was the blind Republican Party loyalty of too many district voters.
But another part of it was media irresponsibility. Jefferson’s comment that he’d rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers requires that newspapers be free and independent, not in the pocket of government.
The local daily newspaper’s blind allegiance to everything Republican played a role in Cunningham’s election to seven terms of office. The congressman’s soaring mediocrity was apparent to some of us who interviewed him before every election. We protested endorsing such a candidate, but were always in the minority. Because Cunningham was a Republican, he easily won the newspaper’s endorsement each time.
Even after Cunningham was exposed as a crook by one of the paper’s own Washington reporters, who came across evidence of his shenanigans while doing a routine on-line credit check, the newspaper’s editorial page, presided over by David Copley and Karin Winner, failed to call for Cunningham’s resignation, as it should have done and would have done for any Democrat.
The local newspaper’s blind party allegiance was also in evidence in the case of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Even as the DeLay smell grew too strong for his own party, the local newspaper continued to back him, to the point of labeling the many charges against him as “routine.” Imagine for a moment that Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, was indicted and forced from office on the same charges as DeLay, and imagine what the local newspaper would have opined about how “routine” her misdeeds would have been.
And let’s not forget lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who became the most notoriously corrupt Washington bagman for DeLay and his Republicans in decades: the local newspaper’s editorials never even mentioned Abramoff.
The newspaper’s blind Republicanism continues to this day as it ignores the debacle of Iraq and other misdeeds of a government now opposed by two-thirds of the nation, refuses to condemn stupid congressional actions such as the proposed $100 gasoline-price rebate, and recommends Bilbray, another lobbyist, for election in the 50th District. Whoever wins on June 6 will fill Cunningham’s seat until November, and put the winner in the strongest position to be elected to a full term in November.
The local newspaper endorsed Bilbray prior to last month’s primary election, a strange action in itself, for the normal newspaper practice is to let the parties pick their own candidates without comment. How much that endorsement hurt or helped Bilbray cannot be known. He won only 15 percent of the vote, barely enough to defeat other Republicans but only a third of Busby’s 44 percent.
Nevertheless, unless Busby comes up with another 6 percent in the runoff next month, giving her 50 percent in a district that is 45-percent registered Republican and only 30-percent registered Democrat, Bilbray will win. The Republicans are pulling out all the stops to help him, including forcing other Republicans off the June primary ballot, sending money for attack ads on Busby and dispatching party stars to campaign for him.
That’s where the 50th District’s moment of truth comes in. The local newspaper failed its moment of truth when it backed Bilbray, a man up to his elbows in the very issues that destroyed Cunningham and DeLay – professional politics and lobbying.
If Busby wins, it will be a victory over the two-party system. It will show that voters in the 50th District understand the importance of electing the candidate, not the party. It will expose, once again, the vapidity of the local newspaper’s endorsements.
It will demonstrate the importance of independent voters in helping to keep our two-party system reasonably honest. Twenty-one percent of the 50th’s voters are independents, those whose votes will not be determined by blind party allegiance.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.