Thursday, June 17, 2010

A thought: Maybe 2010 is an election year in which incumbents get to justify their existence -- if they can


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This Daily Show clip was offered by's Chris Cillizza the other day in a discussion of the conventional wisdom regarding incumbents this year.

"From Plaquemines Parish to Wall Street, we are seeing what happens when government takes too hands-off an approach to private economic actors. Yet the GOP is managing to sell the idea that the big issue in this election should be . . . government spending.

"Professor Obama and his allies ought to be ashamed of this. The cure for malaise is to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit."

--E. J. Dionne Jr., in his WaPo column today,

by Ken

"A weird malaise is haunting the Democratic Party," E. J. Dionne Jr. begins his column today, continuing, "That's a risky word to use, I know." In case you're wondering, no, he doesn't mean "Democratic Party," which in any case would be a risky pair of words. He means "malaise."
It's freighted with bad history and carries unfortunate implications. So let's be clear: President Obama is not Jimmy Carter, not even close. And Obama's speech on Tuesday was nothing like Carter's 1979 "malaise speech," in which Carter never actually used that word. Obama gave a good and sensible speech that was not a home run.

What's odd is that Obama was seen as needing a home run. This is where the Democratic malaise comes in.

Democrats should feel a lot better than they do. They enacted a health-care bill that had been their dream for more than 60 years. They pulled the country out of a terrifying economic spiral. They are on the verge of passing the biggest reform of Wall Street since the New Deal. The public has identified enemies that are typically seen as Republican allies: oil companies and big bankers. And given the Republicans' past policies, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is at least as much their problem as Obama's.

On top of this, the GOP seems to be doing all it can to make itself unelectable, veering far to the right and embracing a Tea Party movement that, at its extremes, preaches the need for revolution. That sounds more like the old New Left than a reinvigorated conservatism. Oh, yes, and can you think of one thing Republicans stand for right now other than cutting spending? Never mind that they are conspicuously vague about what they'd cut.

Yet it is Democrats who are petrified, uncertain and hesitant -- and this was true before the oil spill made matters worse.

I've been thinking about the Incumbent Question since the other day when I got snookered into reading a piece, from Chris Cillizza's "The Fix" blog, which was billed in a newsletter as "Incumbents doing better than thought." Since Chris the Fixer has been one of the people peddling the line that 2010 is a year in which incumbents running for reelection might as well simply start packing their stuff now for the long trip back to Palookaville, I mean home, this got my attention. The actual head on the item, however, was "Incumbents Beware! (Or Not)," and it found Chris in his "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" mode, which, come to think of it, is better than his declaring-the-agenda mode.

"Conventional wisdom has cemented that 2010 will be an anti-incumbent year," Chris began, and already we have to call for a timeout. Just a sec, Chris. You're talking as if "conventional wisdom" is somebody else. But aren't you, or don't you aspire to be, "the conventional wisdom"? Isn't that the whole point of "The Fix"? To codify and, where possible, improve, what passes for wisdom Inside the Beltway?

I don't suppose you think of it that way, Chris -- you know, that your job is Keeper of the Flame of Orthodoxy. You like to think yourself as some sort of gadly blowing the whistle on the CW.

I'm here to say that, when artfully practiced (and anyone with mainstream-journalism aspirations has to learn to practice this artfully), it's the same damned thing. Fortuitously, in the post of Glenn Greenwald's I quoted from yesterday, "The media's understanding of its role," Glenn Greenwald recommended -- even while noting that he doesn't agree with all of it -- a post by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, "Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press." Professor Rosen thinks he's mostly alone in finding the ideology of journalists "complicated," while most everyone else thinks it's simple, despite the fact that we in the "simple" camp disagree comically on what that simple ideology is. I would argue that it's, er, complicatedly simple, by which I mean that it's all about What's In It for Me, but that's an argument for another day.

Back now to CW gadfly (giggle) Chris C, who appeared on the verge of striking a dagger to the heart of the conventional -- i.e., that they're toast -- regarding incumbents in this election cycle.
Apparently no one told Jon Stewart. The "Comedy Central" host and -- don't fool yourself -- widely influential commentator about all things political took on that CW on his show last week.

Stewart noted that of the 84 incumbents running on Super Duper Tuesday, all but two were re-nominated. One lost -- scandal-tarred Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons -- while a second, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), was forced into a June 22 runoff.

[At this point, Chris introduced the Daily Show clip we saw at the top of this post.]

So, is Stewart right? Do the facts bear out that 2010 is indeed an anti-incumbent year? Or is this storyline much ado about nothing?

Not surprisingly it's not long before Chris has us looking at, well, not so much facts -- even though he actually announces, "Let's look at the facts" -- as comparisons "with historic norms." This is a favorite CW way of creating new CW, making comparisons with historic norms. In fairness, if there wasn't some basis of comparison, how would it be possible to discuss meaningfully whether or not these are more or less perilous times than usual for incumbents? Of course, by the time we're hearing --
In 2008, four House Members (three Republicans, one Democrat) fell in their fights for renomination. Two incumbents each lost in the 2006 and 2004 elections; in 2002 election eight House Members lost in primaries, but five of those defeats came in redistricting races in which two incumbents were forced to face off against one another --
we realize that what's being passed off as "historic norms" is what we've more traditionally called "the incumbent protection racket." Seriously, with 437 seats in the House, and maybe 400 (or whatever the actual number is) of them running for reelection in any given cycle, don't numbers like those tell us that we should be rooting for some meaningful incumbent peril?

But just when you think you've got our Chris, he throws a curve. In this case, he starts looking at factors in particular races that might have affected their outcome! Oh, the perfidy!
So far in 2010, four Senate and House incumbents -- Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R), Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D), Reps. Alan Mollohan (W. Va.) and Parker Griffith (Ala.) -- have lost their bids for re-nomination. Inglis looks to be in serious trouble heading into next week's runoff, and both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have real primaries in August.

How do those losses by incumbent compare with historic norms?

On the Senate side, no more than one incumbent has lost a renomination bid since 1980, when four senators lost primaries. That said, it's hard to quantify how much bigger a deal it is for two incumbents to lose rather than one -- assuming both McCain and Bennet pull it out later this year.

In House terms, the defeats of two -- or even three -- incumbents are not historically anomalous. In 2008, four House Members (three Republicans, one Democrat) fell in their fights for renomination. Two incumbents each lost in the 2006 and 2004 elections; in 2002 election eight House Members lost in primaries, but five of those defeats came in redistricting races in which two incumbents were forced to face off against one another.

And, looked at individually, the four incumbent losses so far this cycle could easily be explained as exceptions, not rules. Both Specter and Griffith had switched parties -- a political no-no in almost any election cycle -- and were facing voters for the first time. Bennett was victimized by the unique Utah nominating process in which roughly 3,500 of the most conservative of the most conservative voters decide the nominee. Mollohan had been beset by ethical problems (or the rumor of them) for years and didn't help himself by running a 1980s-style campaign 30 years too late.

Eventually Chris arrives, as deep down you always knew he would, at a proposed new piece of CW:
Given all of that, is the reasonable conclusion that the anti-incumbent narrative is simply wrong or, at best, exaggerated?

Before you nod your head "yes," it's important to look at national polling for context. And, national polling suggests that voters are in a genuine "throw the bums out" sort of mood.

In the June Washington Post/ABC poll, just 29 percent of those tested said they planned to reelect their member of Congress, while 60 percent said they wanted to look around. By comparison, in Post/ABC polling the summer of 1994, nearly four in 10 (38 percent) said they wanted to reelect their own member of Congress.

A May New York Times/CBS News poll paints a similar picture with just nine (NINE!) percent saying members of Congress deserve reelection and 82 percent saying they don't.

Those numbers are startling and, from a political reporter's perspective, hard to ignore. They represent historic -- or near-historic -- levels of voter dissatisfaction. And, they are far from the only data points in surveys that suggest deep distrust with Washington; just 15 percent approved of the job Congress was doing in the Post/ABC survey, while seven in 10 said they were either "dissatisfied" or "angry" at Washington in the CBS/New York Times poll.

So, while the anti-incumbent storyline looks to be overblown (at least slightly) in terms of the actual number of incumbents who have been defeated to date, the national atmospherics suggest real unrest directed at Washington.

The best way to view the 2010 election may then be as anti-Washington rather than anti-incumbent. Candidates with the perceived support of the party in the nation's capital have fallen in considerable numbers -- Trey Grayson in Kentucky, Sue Lowden in Nevada, Artur Davis in Alabama, to name a few -- as they, wrongly, assumed the establishment could save them.

It can't. And that is the lesson of the primary season so far.

Now to whom, one wonders, is any of this supposed to be news? Was it really necessary to launch an investivative probe to ascertain the "context" that the country is in a surly and anxious state of mind? (If David Broder hasn't yet launched one of his famous Outside the Beltway expeditions -- to a tavern or coffee shop somewhere in America's Heartland -- to discover this, surely it's just a matter of time. And it will be news to him too.) Those numbers on popular hostility to incumbents are indeed eye-opening, but where is the "context" that such numbers have been running pretty darned high for at least a couple of decades, and by and large those poll respondents kept voting for those same damned incumbents, who until 2006 were deemed all but invulnerable to electoral challenge, for all sorts of reasons that were engraved in the stone of Conventional Wisdom.

Political scientists usually explained this by opining that by and large folks hated everybody else's incumbent, but not their own. For better or worse, or some of both, that distinction is less operative than it has been, and surely this is a good thing.

Take the case of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Under the rules of the old incumbent protection racket, she should have had clear sailing to renomination. That she could have been vulnerable to mounted so late and in such an improvised way must have come as a pretty rude shock to her, not to mention certain blabbermouth senior White House officials. But really, is it such a surprise that Lincoln became vulnerable near the end of a congressional session in which she dropped any pretense of being anything other than a 100-percent-hired whore of corporate interests?

Of course in the end she learned to make the right sort of noises about being the mighty protector of Arkansas voters' interests, and since the Infotainment News Media had no interest in providing those voters with information about, for example, all that cash the greedy sleazebag has been shoveling in from the masters whose interests she proceeded, coincidentally, to champion so loyally on the Senate floor -- and she got plenty of cover from the administration she had often sorely tried and from the Clintons, who may not have been Village favorites when they were in the White House but have since learned admirably how to play that game. The Village closed ranks for one of their own, and it doesn't seem to have mattered to those people that it has almost cost the Democratic Party, whose interests the Village Democrats claim to put above all others, that Senate seat.

(As I'm sure you've heard, the latest numbers, admittedly from the highly suspect pollster-player Scott Rasmussen, have Madame Blanche trailing her November opponent, GOP Rep. John Boozman, 61 percent to 32. That's a margin that seems to me to exceed even the most outrageous whorish-pollster bias. The opponent she so narrowly defeated, Bill Halter, might at least have made a race of it.)

Maybe in the end we've got a situation that a few years ago most of us would have considered something of a goal: an electorate to which incumbents have to justify their existence if they want to be reelected.

As it happens, E. J. Dionne Jr. doesn't think all those Democrats running around like panicky chickens without heads need to be so panicky. The centerpiece of his argument is the recently released poll done for National Public Radio by the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republicans at Public Opinion Strategies." The poll found that "in the 70 most competitive House districts, 60 of them held by Democrats . . . the Democrats 'face a daunting environment in 2010.'"
"The results are a wake-up call for Democrats whose losses in the House could well exceed 30 seats," they declared. Two findings convey the whole: "Sixty-two percent of Republicans in Democratic districts describe themselves as very enthusiastic about the upcoming election," compared with only 37 percent of Democrats. And: "By 57 to 37 percent, voters in these 60 Democratic seats believe that President Obama's economic policies have produced record deficits while failing to slow job losses."

Paranoia is striking deep among Democrats, and this poll will only aggravate the disorder. In those competitive districts, Democratic incumbents will be tempted to hunker down, distance themselves from the president, urge their leaders to be cautious and run for the hills to seek refuge from a looming Republican wave.

But the numbers in the NPR survey are so bad that Democrats might pause before becoming lemmings. There is something preposterous about how the administration and congressional Democrats have lost every major public argument that they should be winning.

They lost it on a stimulus bill that clearly lifted the economy, as Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, argued persuasively in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. They are losing it on the health-care bill, a big improvement on the current system enacted through a process that made it look like a tar ball on an Alabama beach. They are losing it on the deficit even though it was Republicans who cut taxes twice while the Bush administration was starting two wars.

Obama is often criticized for being too professorial. The irony is that Republicans who have little to say about how to solve the nation's major problems are dominating the country's underlying philosophical narrative.

From Plaquemines Parish to Wall Street, we are seeing what happens when government takes too hands-off an approach to private economic actors. Yet the GOP is managing to sell the idea that the big issue in this election should be . . . government spending.

Professor Obama and his allies ought to be ashamed of this. The cure for malaise is to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit.

Now it could be argued that these "accomplishments" of Democrats are overstated, but by whom can that be hoenstly argued? Surely not by Republicans, whose only contribution was to do everything in their power to make each of those policy areas worse, the better to produce what Sen. Jim DeMint so called, in a refreshing burst of honesty, "Obama's waterloo."

A more serious question is how many Democrats can honestly take advantage of the arguments Dionne lays out. To put it another way, how many of those endangered Democrats actually "have a self-confident sense of purpose" and have "act[ed] boldly in its pursuit"? From an electoral standpoint it might not matter, since all that necessarily matters in an election is what you can get enough voters to believe.

Still, and this is yet another reason why I love E. J. Dionne, who seems always to want to be able to believe the best about people, his prescription could be a winner if pols -- emphatically including the administration -- could be induced to adopt it as their own:

"to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit."

(Confidential to Master Rahm E.: Making yourself as filthy-rich and powerful as possible is truly not what Mr. Dionne has in mind as "a self-confident sense of purpose," and so I'm afraid that no, you don't get even partial credit for "act[ing] boldly in its pursuit.")

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