A Cautionary Tale About the Perils of Coronations & Uncompetitive Elections

08/22/2010 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Other than perhaps drug policy reform and some civil liberties issues, I rarely agree with the Denver Post's conservative/libertarian columnist Vince Carroll on policy issues. However, his recent piece on what voters should be able to expect from candidates is right-on. Indeed, it is a must-read jeremiad against the perils of uncontested elections and, ultimately, against the kind of red-versus-blue tribalism that increasingly strips substance out of our (allegedly) democratic process.

Using the recent campaign ad by Colorado gubernatorial frontrunner John Hickenlooper (D) as a jumping-off point, Carroll notes that the Denver Mayor's spot isn't saying we need a governor "to make tough but unavoidable cuts in government spending" - Hickenlooper is, instead trumpeting a broad ideological mantra against the very concept of government spending. Additionally, Hickenlooper has spent recent months criticizing Colorado Democrats' energy and regulatory policies; opposing Democratic legislators' efforts to end corporate welfare subsidies and raise revenues; and flip-flopping on the issue of global climate change.

Looking at Hickenlooper's posture in sum, Carroll notes that this is part of the usual dance where "many politicians remake themselves depending on the mood of the times." However, Carroll also notes that when that inevitably happens, democracy relies on candidates' "opponents (to) offer a bracing reality check in response, reminding voters of certain, er, inconsistencies in the actual record." And, as Carroll points out, that's where the fundamental downside of Colorado's current gubernatorial campaign - and uncontested elections in general - comes in:

Yet that (scrutiny) may not happen this time because Republican Dan Maes can't raise any money to get the word out while (Constitution Party candidate Tom) Tancredo, even if he can, will be obsessing as usual about immigration...

Here's the problem: Ballots go out in less than two months and voters still have little idea what Hickenlooper's real agenda might be - other than a gauzy come-together, let's-put-folks- to-work theme.

This is where the potential lack of a real contested gubernatorial election in Colorado - and, really, lack of contested elections in many congressional races - deprives voters of a debate on issues, accountability, and the potential for a legislative election mandate. When primaries go uncontested, when gerrymandered districts allow for uncontested general elections and/or when one party puts up unelectable clowns (as is probably the case in Colorado on the Republican side of the gubernatorial race), the coronated candidate doesn't have to actually explain himself - or even answer for his inconsistencies.

The way this dynamic will likely play out in Colorado illuminates the broader perils. Here we have arguably the biggest budget and revenue emergency in state history. Here we are in a state that has already become a national cautionary tale about the idea of relying on government spending cuts as a comprehensive and constructive public policy vision. And here we are, little more than 2 months from a gubernatorial election with the presumptive governor campaigning on a blanket "cut government spending" message - and (so far) not having to face a contested election where he has to answer questions about what specifically he proposes to cut (a query a credible GOP candidate would demand answers to), or whether a laser-like focus on such cuts (rather than, say, a focus on increasing revenue) is even appropriate for the times.

Democratic party officials and activists, of course, are thrilled that Republicans are in disarray and that Hickenlooper may walk to the governorship. So transfixed on the red-versus-blue sport of politics, all they are focused on is a win - regardless of what that win means. But rank-and-file voters shouldn't be thrilled about this - not because Hickenlooper is less qualified than Maes or Tancredo (he is definitely WAY MORE qualified than them), but because the cakewalk election means it is difficult to subject his deliberately vague and ideologically misguided anti-government message to necessary electoral scrutiny.

When we wonder why our elected leaders seem to stand for nothing, or why we have trouble holding those leaders accountable, we can look to this kind of situation for answers.