07/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic Party's Democracy Problem

Barack Obama and the Democratic Party establishment that he supposedly overthrew in November are trying to lock in primary candidates in Pennsylvania and New York who, ahem, were never even elected to the position in question: Democratic nominee for the United States Senate.

Here in Pennsylvania, party leaders are flexing their muscle to discourage anyone (Representative Joe Sestak in particular) from challenging Senator Arlen Specter who, as an until-very-recently Republican, has never won a Democratic Party primary. While Specter is of course an incumbent Senator, Pennsylvania Democrats have never elected this political survivalist to be their candidate.

Specter, while not a hard-right Republican, has opposed much progressive legislation, including the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Fortunately, groups like Keystone Progress have set up a Specter Scorecard to track his progressive batting average, an invaluable tool for watchful progressives come 2010.

Sestak, who has expressed his annoyance with the Party establishment, says that he would politely decline the President's request to stay out of the race. And here in Philly, Democrats want a challenger.

To be sure, the guy's no dyed in the wool progressive, as TPM and Nate Silver have discussed. But a primary is probably a good thing for progressives any way you look at it.

First, Obama's own campaign against Hillary Clinton undermines the argument that a tough primary leaves the Party weak going into a general election. I was angry that Hillary stayed in the race at the time--but I turned out to be oh so wrong. McCain's smears failed to stick because voters had already heard it all. Second, as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch argues, a challenge will either lead to a potentially more progressive (at least not more conservative) guy getting elected or to the election of a leftwardly pushed Specter.

In New York, the Village Voice's Tom Robbins writes that Obama has personally intervened to discourage primary challenges to newly anointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. As Robbins puts it, Gillibrand's "sole vote came from a governor [David Paterson] who was also never elected to his own current post and who is unlikely to hold onto his own job should he face the voters next year." Gillibrand has upset many on the Left for a voting record that has been anti-immigrant and big on guns--is this the "new politics" we can believe in?