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Casey at the Bat

Do Dems still get to choose their candidates?

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The next Pennsylvania Democrat to run for U.S. Senate will, apparently, be anti-choice.

 

 

That doesn't mean the person challenging Rick Santorum next year will oppose abortion rights -- although one possible candidate, State Treasurer Robert Casey, certainly does. It means political insiders are trying to prevent voters from choosing who that challenger is.

 

In recent months, national Democrats like New York Sen. Charles Schumer have all but anointed Casey as the state's standard-bearer in 2006. Governor Ed Rendell is said to be ready to throw his considerable weight behind Casey, should he decide to run. Casey's decision could come as early as this week.

 

Meanwhile, even other candidates seem willing to play along. Casey's leading rival is former state Treasurer (and Allegheny County Commissioner) Barbara Hafer. She's pro-choice on abortion, but apparently also opposes the right to decide whether we should support her. She told the Harrisburg Patriot-News last week that "Neither [Casey nor I] wants a primary, so we're going to have to work this out." 

 

The theory, obviously, is that primary battles can be divisive and consume resources needed to fight Santorum. The one thing Democrats can't afford these days, it seems, is democracy -- especially when candidates differ on abortion. The party wants blue-collar Dems that go for Casey, sure. But it also needs pro-choice moderate Republicans in the Philly suburbs, who helped give Dems two big statewide wins: Rendell's victory in 2002, and John Kerry's win last fall. The best way to hold onto both groups, the strategy goes, is to not remind them of each other in a primary battle.

 

Hafer has polls that show "a majority of Pennsylvania voters prefers a candidate who is pro-choice on abortion." The polling data, Hafer claims, shows that she and Santorum are neck-in-neck in a hypothetical match-up. But more independent data, released by Quinnipiac University Feb. 16, shows Hafer trailing Santorum by 8 percentage points; Casey, meanwhile, has a 5-point lead.

 

The idea that Casey is more "electable" is why the party wants to make sure voters have no choice but to elect him in the primary. As a pro-choice voter in both senses, I find that...irksome.

 

Like Santorum, Casey is a Catholic, and he'll be able to point out that Rick practices, at best, a salad-bar spirituality, picking the things that support his political agenda, and leaving the rest behind.

 

For example, Santorum held a dog-and-pony show about his plans to reform Social Security last week. When audience members suggested shoring up the system by raising taxes on the rich, Santorum objected that wouldn't be fair: "It turns this social compact into a welfare system," he said. 

 

In fact, Santorum's own spiritual leaders, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that's exactly what it should be. In a February statement, the bishops insisted, "Any changes made in the [Social Security] tax structure should be weighed in favor of the poor. Those with lower incomes should bear less of the...burden than those who are more affluent."

 

Even if Casey loses Pennsylvania, pointing up Santorum's hypocrisy may help win a larger crusade: a battle not just for the U.S. Senate but the American soul, which is being corrupted by the false faith of right-wing opportunists.

 

So yes, I could pull the lever for Casey in good faith. The thing is, that's how I'd like to pull it: in good faith. Not because I have no other choice.

 

As Matt Bai wrote in the Feb. 27 New York Times magazine, "Real debates between competing visions of the future...sharpen arguments and energize parties, even when they lead to defeat. The modern Republican Party has been split by disagreements among social warriors and anti-tax zealots, and the resulting tensions...have helped hone an agenda that now dominates the national discourse."

 

Republicans dominate that discourse partly for two reasons: Democrats haven't challenged them, and Dems haven't challenged each other. So we get candidates like John Kerry who say as little as possible during the primaries...and then lose to candidates like Bush because voters say they "know where Bush stands."

 

To win next year, Democrats need to galvanize their base, the way Republicans will be galvanized to keep Santorum in office. I can't think of a worse way to do that than denying the party faithful a chance to choose their own candidate.

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