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Is Incumbency a Bad Word in America?

19 May 2010 12 Comments

Election results  yesterday in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky  have shown that the most endangered species in America is not, in fact,  the California Condor, or the Florida Manatee.  The most endangered species may just be Congressional incumbents, and for good reason.  In all three of these states the electorate showed its anger by voting squarely against the establishment.

In the State of Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter’s thirty-year career in the U.S.  Senate was abruptly and decisively  brought to a halt by upstart Joe Sestak, a ex-Admiral with almost no legislative experience.   Over recent years, Specter had become a “persona  non grata”  within the Republican Party due to his centrist political stands, and  for supporting Obama’s $700 billion bail-out package  in 2008.  With almost no chance of winning the Republican primary, Specter did the unthinkable; he became a Democrat.  Unfortunately for him, Democrats viewed him as untrustworthy and opportunistic, and everyone else viewed him as simply an “incumbent”.  He didn’t stand a chance.  Even President Obama realized that Specter was “toast”, and stayed away from campaigning on his behalf.

In the State of Kentucky, Republican (actually Libertarian) Rand Paul soundly defeated Trey Grayson, who was  hand-picked by retiring Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.  After securing his victory, Rand Paul  paid homage to the Tea Party movement, claiming  his election was a resounding victory for the  ultra-conservative wing of the party, and that a “day of reckoning”  had arrived for the Washington establishment.  In reality, the voters of Kentucky were robbed of the privilege of  throwing their incumbent senator, Mitch McConnell, out of office, so they took out their frustration on Trey Grayson.

In the State of Arkansas,  Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln failed to achieve enough votes to avoid a run-off election against Lt. Governor Bill Halter.  In this case, Senator Lincoln had angered the left wing of the party by staunchly opposing the public option in the proposed health care reform bill.  In reality, Blanche Lincoln has always been considered by conservative Arkansas voters as a centrist candidate, and would probably have the best chance for victory in the general election.  At this point it is doubtful that anti-incumbent minded Democrats in Arkansas will make Senator Lincoln their candidate of choice.

There is no denying that the mood of voters across America is ugly.  Congress has clearly failed to deal with many of the major problems facing the country, and has done little to accomplish the agenda that was promised during the elections of 2008.   The reasons for this failure lie squarely on the backs of Republicans, who left the newly elected Obama Administration with an economy in a virtual state of collapse, then did everything they could to stand in the way of government programs that could help our nation to recover.  The Republicans turned each and every vote into a political test of  “conservative purity”, rather than focusing on the needs of the people for true reform.  It is natural and, perhaps, predictable that the electorate would hold all incumbents accountable for the legislative gridlock that has plagued America for the last two years.  What is, in fact,  needed in the November elections is a wholesale repudiation of Republican incumbents, and the election of a clear and filibuster-proof majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress.


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  • David said:

    I’ll be exploring this subject in a post later at my own blog, but I would like to make a couple of points.

    1) The dynamics in each race were different. Specter was trying to win a Democratic primary after decades of Senate service as a Republican. It did not surprise me that many Pennsylvania Democrats apparently looked upon his motives with a certain amount of suspicion.

    Incidentally, Sestak has as much Washington experience as Obama had when he sought the presidency. He just isn’t seeking as important a job.

    2) Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky also did not surprise me. The Tea Partiers have been largely identified as Republicans, perhaps the most motivated of Republicans in 2010, and Paul cashed in on that. Kentucky was once a competitive state, in both general elections and party primaries; today, not so much.

    3) In Arkansas, I was surprised that Lincoln and Halter ran neck and neck — but not that there will be a runoff. Lincoln is not especially popular in Arkansas right now.

    I agree with your assertion that the mood in America is ugly, but I don’t necessarily agree that the Republicans should bear most of the blame. The Democrats control 59 seats in the Senate. In fact, they actually enjoyed the fabled “filibuster-proof” majority through the second half of 2009 — until the Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s seat in the special election.

    With that kind of advantage from late June 2009 (when Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota) until January 2010 (when Scott Brown won in Massachusetts), why did the Democrats fail to act more decisively?

    If, as you say, the campaign promises of 2008 have not been kept, isn’t that the fault of the Democrats? And, as titular leader of his party, isn’t Obama responsible for that failure?

  • Marc Chamot said:

    Great post! I totally agree with you. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while, and these Washington pols been ignoring. Interesting to see what the future hold.

  • VH said:

    “In the State of Kentucky, Republican (actually Libertarian) Rand Paul soundly defeated Trey Grayson, who was hand-picked by retiring Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell.”

    McConnell is retiring? I thought it was Jim Bunning.

  • bluzdude said:

    Unfortunately, all I see the anti-incumbent sentiment doing is sending more hard-line people to Washington to further widen the gap between right and left and snuffing out any chance of getting things done for the country.

  • admin (author) said:

    Yes, the Democrats did enjoy a filibuster-proof majority for one short year. This is hardly enough breathing room to develop , discuss and enact major pieces of legislation. The Republicans would love to have the electorate believe it was the Democrat’s fault that Obama’s legislative agenda was not passed. We both know that the Republicans have blocked anything and everything whenever they could. Obama cannot be held responsible for Republican intransigence.

  • admin (author) said:

    Marc Chamot,
    The Republicans have been crowing about how they are going to take back the Congress in November 2010. I hope the voters realize that Republican victories will only throw government into an even worse state of grid-lock. The answer to peoples’ dis-satisfaction with government is not more Republicans in office, but less; a lot less!

  • admin (author) said:

    I stand corrected. McConnell endorsed Trey Grayson for the seat formerly held by Jim Bunning, who is retiring. I actually remember when Bunning used to be a Major League pitcher; Yikes!

  • admin (author) said:

    You are so right about that. We are becoming a nation that is more and more divided along ideological lines. This does not bode well for the future of this great land. Legislative gridlock may plague us for many, many years to come.

  • Carpetbagger said:

    I think it’s too simplistic to label Tuesday as anti-incumbent. I agree with David that these were three unique circumstances in play. But I don’t agree with his take to blame the Dems.

    1) Pennsylvania voters just seemed anti-Specter. They were tired of his act. It was painful to see Obama and labor in the tricky position of having to hold their noses and back Specter, otherwise nobody would ever switch parties again. PA’s Dem voters went with an authentic Dem.

    2) Kentucky was just the Republican civil war between the Tea Partiers and the GOP establishment. Not sure how his ultra-right wing views will play in the fall. Personally, I think he will turn off independents.

    3) Ark was a Democratic Civil War between moderate and progressive Dems.

    I don’t think you can paint these three races with the same broad brush. The extreme sides of both parties(who tend to vote in primaries) may be in a “kick the bums out” mood, but the fall will still be decided by the independents. As PA 12 proved, when it comes to a general election, as upset as the country is with the state of things, I’m not sure they’re ready to turn back to the GOP.

  • The Declining Talent Pool of Government – Abstract Politics said:

    [...] why over 90% of U.S. House members get reelected every two years.3 Despite all the recent hubbub about 2010 being an anti-incumbent election year, I’ll be stunned (like Sides and Yglesias) if that [...]

  • Maxi said:

    It’s very sad that way the US is thought of in other countries no matter who the president is. I was in Greece before Obama was elected and no one was excited about who won. Now Greece has turned the world upside down.

  • Amy said:

    Unfortunately, all I see the anti-incumbent sentiment doing is sending more hard-line people to Washington to further widen the gap between right and left and snuffing out any chance of getting things done for the country.

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