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Is "Top Two" Turning Our Politicians Into Mitt Romney?

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Opinion: Is "Top Two" Turning Our Politicians Into Mitt Romney?

AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a victory rally, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, at Union Terminal in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

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Advocates of the new California top-two system for elections argue that one of its benefits is that it creates incentives for politicians of one party to talk to voters of the other.

Fair enough. The problem is the kind of talk being incentivized: personal attacks and cynical, dishonest rendering of your positions.

Here's how it's working, or more precisely, not working. Top two is supposed to create more moderate, compromising, independent politicians. The main way this dishonest reform works is that in heavily partisan districts, it can advance two members of the same party (the "top two") to the general election. The theory is that those two candidates of the same party, to win the election, will have to compete for the votes of independents and the other party.

It's hard to measure this competition, but there is some of it.

Most of it is about personal attacks. Candidates that essentially agree with each other distinguish themselves by painting a negative picture of the opponent. That's turned a number of current legislative races into a bloodbath (see the Congressional race between Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both Democrats in the San Fernando Valley) as a case study of this.

The dishonesty part is newer (it's actually so dishonest that its very name is a lie: the "top-two primary" is not a primary -- it actually eliminates primaries). So as we hit the home stretch of legislative contests before the November election, some candidates in these races are dishonestly and cynically pretending to be supportive of the other party.

The liberal blog Calitics noted a couple of examples recently, including Howard Berman's touting the endorsement of Republicans like John McCain. But the best example comes from an Assembly district in the Bay Area, where two Democrats are battling.

Writes Calitics of this contest between Assembyman Michael Allen and San Rafael City Councilmember Marc Levine:

"Allen beat Levine by 7 points in the primary, but over 20% of the vote went to a Republican as well. A couple of weeks ago, Levine was seen on news footage attending the opening of the Marin County Republican Party/Mitt Romney headquarters -- even though he's on his county's Democratic Central Committee -- and joined with their hardest-core partisans in rallying for Mitt Romney before the RNC Convention in Tampa."

One could argue that Levine's flexibility is a virtue, just as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's ability to change positions -- his own campaign advisor described his effort as an " Etch A Sketch" -- could be seen as a virtue. Or that this set of events is a virtue of the top-two system, in that Levine's lack of loyalty to his party and its ideal has been exposed by the new system.

I take a different view. It's hard enough to know what the intentions of politicians are, without a system that encourages them to be something they are not.

California would be better off with a system in which the contests were not over insults or a candidate's flexibility but over ideas to fix the state. The best way to do that would be a system that permits the two parties to offer competing ideas, and for Californians to choose which party they want to rule. But in California, we're moving away from that system.

Instead, we've embraced "Etch-A-Sketch" politics. Who says California can't embrace Romney?

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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