Chris Powell: Conn. politics bathed in bile

MANCHESTER, Conn. On  Aug. 11, Tom Foley's commercials were disparaging his rival for the Connecticut Republican gubernatorial nomination,  state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney,  as a "career politician." But  the next night, after McKinney conceded the Republican primary election, Foley praised him for having spent "15 years defending Republican principles at the state Capitol" -- praised him for being a "career politician."

At their debate Aug. 10,  McKinney scorned Foley for taking positions that effectively made him a Democrat. But conceding  the next night, McKinney pledged to help Foley defeat that  other Democrat, Gov. Dan Malloy.

While the knives were sheathed so ironically on the Republican side, they were being drawn on the Democratic side.

The governor remarked that the winning Republican would repeal Connecticut's recent increase in the minimum wage and requirement for paid sick leave.

That's not likely, since repeal would be possible only with a Republican majority in the General Assembly, which hasn't happened in 30 years. The 16 years that Connecticut has had with Republican governors since then showed that a Republican governor can only put a little restraint on the legislature's Democratic majority -- can only slow the growth of government, not shrink it.

Besides, Foley has taken precious few positions on issues and they don't include repealing the minimum wage increase and paid sick leave.

The impending nasty theme of the Democratic campaign was indicated by its other statements  primary-election night. Foley was called "the quintessential 1-percenter" who "has spent his career making millions while destroying jobs."

That is, the Democratic campaign will be mainly character assassination, since, as Connecticut's decline continues and people are generally dissatisfied, emphasis on policy issues would favor the Republican candidate -- if he had any grasp of them.

Foley doesn't have such grasp yet even as the best deflection of character assassination might be the candidate's obsession with policy issues, an obsession conveyed by frequent addresses to the state rather than reliance on the usual empty or vicious ads.

People outside Connecticut's government and welfare classes sense that the state, as Foley says, is going in the wrong direction. But his claim of qualification -- his experience as a high-finance businessman -- is not likely to win him trust while the governor's campaign maligns him and while business is considered to be just as venal as government itself.

Desperate as Connecticut's circumstances are, generalities and inoffensiveness may not be mistaken for leadership.

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Expectation of low turnout in the Republican primary renewed calls for Connecticut to adopt an open primary system, at least for letting unaffiliated voters help choose Republican nominees, the nominees of the minority party. The argument is that opening its primaries to unaffiliated voters would broaden the party's appeal and nominate more attractive and moderate candidates.

But open primaries are actually the  destruction of parties and political choice. For if anyone can vote in a party's primary without making even the slightest commitment to the party -- the commitment of registration -- there really is no party at all; the party is everybody.

The New Haven Register, Torrington Register-Citizen, and Middletown Press complained editorially the other day that Connecticut's 800,000 unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc in the state, could not participate in the Republican primary. But unaffiliateds could have participated easily just by enrolling as Republicans as late as the day before the primary. Unaffiliateds have no say in nominations only because they choose to have none.

Maybe in other states open primaries would favor more moderate candidates, but even extremists should have the right to form parties and get their nominees on the ballot, and the problem of Connecticut's Republican Party is not that it is too conservative. The party here is largely indifferent to the social issues that drive the left and right to hysteria. The problem of the party here is that, like its nominee for governor, it has so little to say.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.