Late last week, after being strangely and awkwardly coy, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Barber came forth with the unsurprising intelligence that he was running for re-election after being quite public about his preparations to do so for months.
It is also hardly news to most folks reading this that Barber has been the target of a lot of criticism from Democratic activists and folks on the left for some inexplicable high-profile votes, most notably a procedural vote that essentially made the government shutdown inevitable, and another other for a phony "fix" that essentially gutted the Affordable Care Act.
While I do not question his good intentions, the criticism is deserved. Deal-making and compromise are essential to the business of the legislative branch, but these votes produced nothing in terms of policy or political gain, other than to enable the majority to claim that their moves were somehow bipartisan. One supposes that these were intended to make Barber look clever and post-partisan, but all he needed to have done was to look toward his House colleague Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Flagstaff who lost in 2010, to see an example of how such posturing fails to fool anybody and only irks one's friends.
It should be noted that Kirkpatrick, having made a comeback in 2012, did not think it necessary to make these concessions despite her own precarious standing in a difficult district. Obviously, she learned something from her loss.
This being said, calls from progressives to oppose Barber in a primary are a waste of breath. I am not saying this because I do not believe that a vigorous debate could be a good thing, but, rather, because I do not think that their ideal candidate exists, at least not right now.
While the comparison seems a bit unfair, it is reminiscent of the candidate Frank Antenori recruited to run against Councilman Steve Kozachik in the most recent city election. While Antenori had a very specific notion of who this individual was, the candidacy never materialized.
Likewise, progressives seem to be enamored with the notion of a primary, but the candidate remains strictly theoretical, like Schrödinger's half-dead cat. Unfortunately, Arizona's election laws do not allow for a primary ballot that lists Ron Barber and "A Progressive." This may seem archaic in this day and age, but candidates are still required to have a name and a pulse.
But, as the Republicans should have learned in the last two city elections, simply having a name on a ballot is not enough, even against an unpopular incumbent. Simply having the right opinions on the issues of the day does not equal electoral victory; candidates need to have some standing in the community. This is what got Barber, who had decades of business and government experience, elected in the first place. His Republican opponent in the 2012 special election had no credentials other than his strong opinions, which is why we hardly remember him now.
Historically, Tucson has been represented in Congress by people with strong roots in Southern Arizona. Mo Udall, Jim Kolbe, Jim McNulty, Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva had all been working in the community for years and were well known locally before they ever ran for Congress. In other words, if there was a prominent progressive in a position to make a credible run in a primary, we would have heard of her by now.
Too many Democratic office-holders, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly, tend to regard progressives as impatient and inconstant. Once in office, they tend to lurch to the right not only because they do not believe that they can rely on progressives to support them, but also because they believe that there is little political cost to pissing off the left. Having a candidate who simply says the right things will get the votes of activists and no one else, which is not only a losing formula in a Democratic primary in Tucson, but is not even enough, as progressive favorite Jeff Latas' poor performance in the 2006 congressional primary shows, to move the debate.
There may be a point to running, or threatening to run, a candidate in the primary in order to, as one local progressive blogger says, "keep them honest." But this will have little impact without a credible candidate. Recruiting and nurturing such an individual is a long-term project that can probably not be done in time for the 2014 election. In the meantime, progressives need to focus their efforts on something other than a fantasy primary.