Friday, December 23, 2011

Jeff Smith Is Using The Wrong Sense of 'Should' And Carnahan Should Run In Missouri's 2nd District

Hotline has posted a thorough analysis from Jeff Smith arguing that, with the newly redrawn Congressional district lines, Russ Carnahan should run for Congress against fellow Democrat Lacy Clay in Missouri's 1st District. Writes Smith:
So Carnahan shouldn't put too many eggs in his legal basket. Instead, he should be raising money and canvassing the new 1st CD.
As you would expect from a Political Science professor and former State Senator, the analysis is detailed and insightful. However, the fatal flaw in Smith's argument is that he's relying on a self-interested notion of 'should' where saying that a person should do action A is equivalent to saying that A is in that person's best interest. This certainly is a common usage of the term and one used to make many decisions. However, this isn't the correct notion of 'should' for a public servant like Congressman Carnahan.

As a Congressman, Carnahan ought to be making his decisions based on a moral 'should,' where saying that someone should do action A means that A is in the best interests of the country, in the best interests of the constituents, or in the best interests of the Democratic party, or better yet, that A is the right thing to do. And on any of these senses of the word 'should,' I think it's pretty clear that Carnahan should run for office in the Republican-leaning 2nd District. Yes it would be an act of altruism, since Carnahan's chances of winning might be slightly lower in the 2nd, but it nevertheless would be the right thing to do.

In fact, one doesn't even have to stray very far from Smith's own analysis to see this is true. First, as Smith has noted, the Democratic Congressional leadership is urging Carnahan to run in the 2nd. Now, Lord knows, the Democratic Party is not always the best judge of what's in its own interest, but the fact that they think Carnahan should run in the 2nd is at least solid initial evidence that someone has crunched some numbers and decided that the best thing for the Democratic Party is to put up a good fight in the 2nd District.

Second, as Smith acknowledges, there's no clear reason to think that Carnahan winning Clay's seat would make Congress any more progressive. Here's what Smith writes:
Although I've seen both congressmen in action, I don't have a strong opinion on who would be a more progressive or effective representative.
So while Carnahan might gain something by beating Clay, it's not at all clear what anyone else would gain (other than the pundits and insiders who would love to cover the race).

But finally, and most importantly, a heated primary between Clay and Carnahan could be tinged with racial acrimony and possibly jeopardize turnout in the general election. Again, here's what Smith writes:
It would be nice to have a high-minded debate about the direction of national policy in a time of gripping economic anxiety, but anyone who knows St. Louis politics or the two principals doubts the likelihood of that. It won't be a race between a modern-day Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama. Instead, given both candidates' limited crossover appeal, observers should prepare for a racially polarizing campaign in the long, sad tradition of St. Louis politics.
Even without any intentional shenanigans, a bitter primary might turn off voters from a general election if they felt like dirty tactics were used in the primary. And in the reddish-purple state of Missouri, with important Senate and Gubernatorial races and a legislature that's on the brink of a fully veto-proof majority, we just can't afford to have people sitting at home during the general elections. And it's actually worse than that, because the reality is that there will be shenanigans, as sadly both people in the Democratic Party and Republicans have cynical reasons to stoke racial divisions among Democrats. A primary battle would very likely be a bloody fight, and that might be good news for pundits but would only create new scars in an already damaged St. Louis political landscape.

So while Smith is right that Carnahan's own short-term self-interest might be better served by running against Lacy Clay, it would be better for the citizens of St. Louis, for the Democratic Party, and, yes, for the country if Carnahan ran in the 2nd District against Ed Martin or Ann Wagner. He might be slightly more likely to lose in the Second, but at least he would be fighting for the right reasons.

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