Zephyr Teachout, in yellow, with "fractivists" (photo: @zephyrteachout)
In her zeal to attach herself to Barack Obama at the recent Democratic debate in Charleston, Hillary Clinton at one point issued a somewhat unexpected line of attack. In advance of the 2012 campaign, Clinton charged, Bernie Sanders had "publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama."
There's no disputing that Sanders did in fact express such a position, based on his concern that Obama was moving to the right during his first term. But during the debate on Twitter and later that evening on CNN, Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod echoed Clinton's disdain for Sanders' view that a primary might be good for the party.
Notably, neither Clinton nor Axelrod deemed it necessary to explain why in their view, such a challenge would have been a bad thing. Here in New York, meanwhile, we've seen quite clearly the positive benefits of making an incumbent answer to his party's base.
In 2014, Zephyr Teachout bucked the leadership of both the state Democratic Party and the Working Families Party by running a primary challenge against Andrew Cuomo. Though outspent by an astronomical sum, Teachout won the same number of counties as the sitting governor. Cuomo's healthy margin of victory (62-34%) came mainly because of the vote in New York City and Buffalo.
Although weakened by a novice candidate, the legendarily vindictive Cuomo has actually sought to make amends with the constituencies that did not support him in the primary.
First he surprised many upstate activists by banning fracking. Over the past year, he has responded to the teachers unions and public school parents by withdrawing his support for the Common Core (an issue central to Rob Astorino's unsuccessful Republican bid in the general election). And Cuomo has patched up his ties with Working Families Party unions by pushing for a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.
Ethics reformers—another Teachout constituency—are still holding their breath. Even as the cloud of suspicion cast over by Cuomo by Preet Bharara hovered, the governor paid only lip service to changing the rules in Albany. For example, despite his stated support for closing the LLC loophole, he continued to rake in donations from big real estate developers. Bharara's investigation thus can't be credited with forcing Cuomo to shift gears.
Nor does Cuomo's sandbox sparring with Mayor de Blasio sufficiently explain the governor's leftward lurch. After all, de Blasio campaigned for Cuomo in 2014, and the latter remains the more popular of the two figures in citywide polling.
In short, absent the primary contest that allowed voters across the state to express various disagreements, Cuomo most likely have would have remained on the centrist course of his first term.
Because there no was primary challenge to Obama in 2012, it would be pure speculation to say that a meaningful challenge from the left would have forced him to move in that direction. But in his second term, Obama hasn't offered up any significant new domestic policy initiatives, suggesting that he's not terribly worried about what the activist wing of the party thinks about his presidency.
Here in New York City, it's unclear whether any candidate will wage a primary contest against Mayor de Blasio next year. But those on the left unhappy with the mayor's caution on police reform and closing Rikers, or coziness with developers, might welcome it. So, too, might more centrist voters concerned about the mayor's management of the homeless problem or the budget implications of his deals with unions.
Regardless of whether a strong contender enters the ring, this much is clear: Always be wary of politicians or pundits who argue that more democracy is not a good thing.
Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. On Twitter @HammerDaily.