03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leaders Should be Elected, Not Anointed

Primary Elections a Last Vestige of Democracy in U.S. Corporatocracy

U.S. democracy may be considered on life support. The wholesale sell-off of government to the highest bidder that accelerated with the '94 Gingrich Congress' lining up corporate dollars behind Republican power continues, as both Democrats and Republicans trade corporate cash for the privilege of writing public policy.

Which explains why Washington often sounds like an echo chamber instead of a center of reasoned debate. Corporate-financed right-wing think tanks seeking frankly to undermine democracy compile talking points frequently grounded in distortion, distraction, demonization of opponents and promotion of free-market fundamentalism. In turn the sound bites are liberally broadcast by conservatives and often become fodder for the media, even repeated by some Democrats. Thus, we hear Blue Dog Democrat recipients of taxpayer-subsidized health coverage railing against "government health care," just as we've heard Medicare recipients protest, "Don't let the government touch my Medicare!"

One expects obfuscation from Republicans like Rep. Mike Coffman, to whom health care reform is a slippery slope to "socialized medicine," but the same misused terminology has been repeated at different times by candidate Ken Salazar and by Rep. Diana DeGette, whose assertion that "we will not have socialized medicine" placed her on the defensive against a frankly inaccurate characterization by the the political right.

Unfortunately, Democrats have failed to make the best case for health care reform as key to economic recovery, instead ceding every argument for comprehensive universal coverage capable of saving $400 billion annually and permitting true full choice of providers. The tail wags the dog as minority conservative corporatists frame health care reform in terms of free-market fundamentalism that treats health as a commodity that can be negotiated, and rationed according to ability to pay, and places profits above health care.

President Obama's tepid promise to "bend the cost curve" in order to merely slow continually rising health costs has left Democrats open to charges of ineffective cost control by born-again Republican and Blue Dog deficit hawks. As costs continue to rise, so do numbers of under- and uninsured.

Forget the perfect - the mediocre has become the enemy of the good. Democrats enjoying rare majorities in the House and Senate are squandering populist support of those rightfully angry about losing jobs, homes, pensions and health care to corporate/Wall St. greed, the same taxpayers who have been forced to subsidize bail-outs for those very corporations that criminally exploit the system at their expense. "Tea Party" activists have laid claim to an angrier tenor of populism, largely grounded in right-wing distortions and efforts to undermine democratic process.

Hierarchies of both corporate Republican and Democratic parties in Colorado seek to avoid primary elections at all cost. Nevertheless, most would welcome the opportunity for open debate afforded by primaries, and would rather legislators were elected, not anointed by political power brokers.

Gov. Bill Ritter's dark-horse appointment of Michael Bennet to fill the U.S. senate seat relinquished by Ken Salazar in his move to the Interior Department has been portrayed by insiders from the White House on down as the final word. The corporate party line is that Bennet is there now, has amassed power (and big corporate bucks), so woe betide anyone who would consider challenging him in a primary.

Part of the equation of esoteric deal-making between the White House and corporate lobbies have been TV promotions in support of Bennet by PhRMA, the pharmaceutical lobby that is one of the biggest winners of Washington-proposed health reform. The group stands to garner billions in extra profits from the federal legislation that forbids negotiation of bulk drug rates or cross-border purchase of medicines.

A sizable portion of Michael Bennet's over $3.5 million in campaign contributions have come from Wall Street, contributing at the very least to the appearance of influence by bankers on his vote opposing bankruptcy protection known as cramdown legislation to permit judges to adjust first mortgages, that according to the Center for Responsible Lending would have saved up to 1.7 million homes from foreclosure.

Many more issues deserve an airing in a primary process. Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire, writes that Bennet voted with the Gun Lobby on four gun votes in 2009. Despite a false equation of guns and the "wild west," as well as manufactured conventional wisdom that Democrats should stay away from gun issues, a majority of people acknowledge the need for reasonable gun safety laws. McCarron notes that 70% of Coloradans voted to pass a state law requiring criminal background checks at gun shows in 2000.

Among Bennet's 2009 votes aligned with the gun lobby:

  • In September Bennet voted to defund Amtrak unless they allowed people to cart their guns in luggage. The prohibition against guns in luggage was enacted five years ago as an anti-terrorism measure. The measure passed.
  • In July Bennet voted for the Thune amendment to effectively nationalize concealed gun carry laws, allowing a CCW permit holder in any state to carry hidden handguns in any other permitting state, effectively relaxing concealed carry laws in some states.
  • In May Bennet voted to allow concealed carry permit holders to take their hidden handguns into our national parks. The law passed. Denver Post columnist Joanne Ditmer wrote of this vote: Congress and the Department of the Interior ignored testimony against any gun law change by seven former directors of the National Park Service, and by representatives of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR), and other officials. Of more than 170,000 letters from citizens to the Department of Interior, more than 64 percent opposed the measure, and were essentially ignored. Most of Colorado's delegation - our two senators and six representatives - voted for the amendment, which was tacked onto the credit card bill, effective in 2010.
  • On a February bill to grant the District of Columbia a voting representative in Congress, Bennet voted for an amendment to prohibit the District of Columbia from enacting gun ordinances, and to nullify all previous gun ordinances. The bill awaits action in the House.
  • McCarron notes that several constituents met earlier in the year with Bennet's legislative liaison to encourage his co-sponsorship of a bill to Close the Gun Show Loophole nationally - the same kind of measure supported by 70% of Colorado voters in 2000. Bennet has thus far taken no action.

Noting that powerful interest groups "are subsidizing Congress and stifling reform," U.S. Senate candidate and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has vowed to forsake contributions from corporate interests. As disclosure, I have known Andrew for some years, and walked for him during several elections. I consider him one of those leaders more capable of defining and communicating honestly about issues, a skill sorely needed inside the Beltway.

We can only hope the Senate race will become more than a choice made by powerful corporate lobbies, and will instead permit an open exchange about issues reflecting true grassroots input. Such debates would be restorative of democracy at a time when many feel abandoned by the process.