Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sitting Ducks?

It’s open season on incumbency. In a number of widely anticipated elections, the grassroots dealt a serious blow to the establishment. First, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) joined Republican Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) as the latest senator to lose a primary battle. Specter, a five-term, thirty-year veteran, was defeated by Joe Sestak, despite (or maybe due to) being endorsed by President Obama. Likewise, Rand Paul won the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky. Paul, the son of Ron Paul and self-avowed Tea Partier, beat Trey Grayson, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) hand-selected candidate. Finally, Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent Democrat from Arkansas, was forced into a runoff election.

These three elections, coupled with Bennett’s recent primary loss in Utah and Scott Brown’s senatorial win in Massachusetts, show the growing power of the anti-establishment movements in the U.S. Americans, on both the left and right, are largely fed up with the status quo and looking to replace everyone and anyone that is ‘part of the machine.’

Critics of this argument may point to the closely watched special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District as a counterpoint. The anti-incumbent storyline was supposed to award PA-12 to Republican Tim Burns. Burns was challenged by Democrat Mark Critz to fill the seat held for decades by the late Democrat Congressman John Murtha. Critz, a former aide to Murtha, was the epitome of the establishment. Simultaneously, the district met every characteristic of one that the GOP needs to win in order to take back Congress. Despite this, Critz managed to beat Burns.

However, while Critz won, the manner in which he ran his campaign only furthers the anti-establishment narrative. As Politico writes, “In districts like Critz’s… the lesson appeared to be that Democrats would be better off keeping their national leaders away—or perhaps only bringing in select figures who can still appeal to centrists, such as former President Bill Clinton, who appeared in Johnstown on Sunday with Critz and Murtha’s widow.” Critz not only is a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat, but opposed healthcare and fought off attempts to be linked to Pelosi and the administration.

All of this together is stark proof of the new political toxicity of incumbency and the Obama administration. While incumbent status used to offer politicians benefits, it now only seems to offer pains. There are a few lessons to be learned from this new pattern.

First, the Obama administration has squandered the overwhelming popular support that swept it into office less than two years ago. Not only did the Democrats misread the election results as a mandate to push forward a liberal agenda, but they so severely overstepped that they fomented widespread anger. As a result, Obama’s popularity has plummeted to 49% and the ‘national consensus’ behind the Democrats has been squandered. For many Americans, the Democrats have gone from the outsiders who could fix Washington, to the very essence of political hacks.

Second, yesterday’s elections profoundly display the political impotence of the administration. Obama had campaigned vigorously for the Democratic candidates in the Virginia and New Jersey governor races, only to see them won by the GOP. Likewise, the administration allowed Martha Coakley to lose Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown. After these fiascos, the administration pushed Joe Sestak not to challenge Arlen Specter (Obama was presumably too embarrassed to even stump for Specter in the primaries). Sestak not only did not listen, but defeated the administration’s pick. The administration has shown itself to not just be unable to keep its party members in-line, but as a political liability to those campaigning under the Democratic standard.

Third, while the pattern of anti-incumbency is targeted at both Republicans and Democrats, it will in the short-run work towards the Republican advantage. This is simply due to the fact that the GOP is in opposition. Democrats are in power and will thus be deemed more responsible at the polls. Republicans who portray themselves as outsiders that are committed to the people and are not part of the establishment will benefit immensely come November.

Finally, all candidates should be wary about appearing to be detached from their constituents. Voters seem to want representation that is based on direct responsibility to the individual rather than an elitist and paternal Washington. Populist movements loathe the exclusive and condescending attitude of many of Washington’s finest. While their emotionalism may often override their common sense, politicians – particularly the moderates – must be aware of these sentiments if they want to maintain their positions and prevent America from divisive polarization.


  1. Josh--

    For such a long post, I found it interesting that the word "economy" is not mentioned once. You're over-thinking the politics: people are out of work, unemployment is still high, and while the economy is no longer in danger of free fall — well, at least not where we were in spring '09 — recovery is still difficult for people to see.

    You write that incumbency is more difficult now than in years past. Come on. A sluggish American economy helped write the music for Kennedy's "time to get America moving again" campaign in 1960, while James Carville memorably penned the words "it's the economy, stupid," while kicking George Bush out of office in 1992. In both cases, the incumbent party did a respectable job of managing the economy, yet circumstances beyond their control influenced the political landscape.

    Bottom line is that people vote their wallets, and when the party in power — always the ones who pledged to "change" Washington — is incapable of performing magic tricks, they take the blame for the people's misery.

    It's fun to blame this on an overreaching liberal agenda and a megalomaniac president bent on reshaping the American system to suit his Leninist fantasies. But as usual, things are not so complicated.


  2. Karl~

    You are right. I don't mean to oversimplify the election. There are certainly many other factors that come into play - the economy certainly one of the biggest.

    But bad economies tend, as you point out, to hurt incumbents in general. This is often regardless of whether the particular economic downturn was the 'fault' of the sitting leaders or not (I tend to think politicians get too much credit for good economies and too much blame for bad economies, much, I believe, is outside their control - but thats a different argument).

    But I dont think that weakens the argument presented here. Instead it is one of the factors that have made this such a bad season for incumbency. I don't think it is the sole factor though, and while the economy is at record lows, it did start its decline prior to Obama. While I think it is inevitable that he would lose popularity, no matter what he did, I do think these other story lines help to explain some of the loss.

    And do note that I don't think incumbency is just a problem for the Democrats. Obviously, Obama overreach is not going to hurt GOP incumbents. The economy is certainly a factor there as is the simple fact of the 'establishment' (see my fourth point).



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