FRANKE: It’s Primary Season Again

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Mark Franke

It’s primary season in Indiana. I know this because my mailbox is beginning to fill with postcards from current elected officials bragging about their record as well as challengers bragging about what they will accomplish as an improvement over the incumbents.

Even though the above generalization sounds cynical, I have not lost all hope for our representative democracy. We have not yet descended into Dante’s third circle of hell with its warning to abandon all hope, so maybe the adjective discouraged better describes my mental state.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is an old saw that fits American and Hoosier democracy, at least if I listen to myself in one of my all-too-frequent brooding moods. Does it really matter whom we elect each November? Does anything ever change come January when the newly elected idealists take office? Remember Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp?” Last time I checked, the swamp not only is still there but occupied by an even greater number of especially vicious political alligators.

Still, hope springs eternal . . at least for rookie candidates.

Last week I attended a “meet the candidate” function at the home of some close friends. The guest of honor is running for an open seat against several other candidates in his party’s primary election. It’s a safe seat for his party which makes this the important election. This is his first campaign so he needs to get his name out among the party faithful, those who go to the polls in May and not just in November.

He trotted out the usual conservative principles of pro-life, anti-tax, pro-freedom and pro-family values one would expect from a Republican in northeast Indiana. And as best I could discern, he was sincere in his convictions. I can say this with confidence as he is a professional with a lucrative salary, one that will get reduced when he forgoes income-producing time to serve in Indiana’s part time yet time-sucking blackhole of a legislature.

He understands how sausage is made in Indianapolis yet he honestly thinks he can change that. He has supporters who have advised him how the party caucuses work to enforce party discipline and protect leadership’s power over the backbenchers. He is girding his loins for the struggle with a naïve optimism that he can make a difference.

One can’t but help cheer people like him on, hoping against hope that he won’t become disillusioned too quickly. Or worse, co-opted by a political establishment which enforces the rules through the distribution of campaign contributions.

One becomes accustomed to hearing complaints about the amount of money involved in election campaigns and its pernicious influence after the election. At least we used to hear that from liberal organizations until the Democrats took Congress and the White House. I guess the influence is still there but no longer pernicious.

So should we be hearing from conservatives now about too much money in politics? Actually we are but from an unexpected source.

Jason Arp, a Fort Wayne City Councilman and colleague at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has constructed a database which focuses on state legislators’ voting records on a carefully selected subset of issues — those attacking property rights through increased governmental regulation, taxation and intervention in the free market. Arp and I share classical liberal principles, although he is rather more libertarian than I and he is much more sophisticated with data analysis.

What his data show is that while Republicans in the General Assembly are more friendly to property rights than Democrats, they are mostly middle-of-roaders in terms of their voting records. Given that Arp’s database is finely tuned for one aspect of conservative philosophy, it ignores social issues that are dear to many conservative hearts and therefore isn’t meant as comprehensive conservative-liberal scale. Still, his scorecard can’t be pleasing to dozens of Republican legislators who consider themselves solidly conservative but are graded as moderates.

How can that happen, given the basic conservative ideology of these politicians? Arp has the answer. Yes, it’s money. It seems the Republican caucus leadership is quite adept at enforcing party discipline — a polite way of describing tactics to get the rank-and-file to vote the way the leadership wants. And their muscle? Control of candidate fund-raising activities and allocation of contributions to candidates who vote the party line.

Arp’s data analysis was distributed yesterday in advance copies of the Indiana Policy Review’s spring journal. It is unsettling while validating what everyone has always believed about politics: money matters. But money is only the tool to get well-intentioned legislators to vote against their self-proclaimed principles.

What concerns me most is why they are being told to vote that way. Who is influencing the party leadership? The other bogeyman in politics as we hoi polloi see things is lobbyists.

Who are the most effective lobbyists with the Republican leadership? I will leave that to someone else to enlighten us. Although I do have my suspicions …

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].