There were a host of political casualties from last week’s Super Tuesday battle, and you can be sure there’ll be plenty more in the coming weeks as slots get filled on who will square off against whom come November.
Yet no matter whose name is on the ballot in each state or even congressional district, voters will be sure of one no matter what — President Obama. Despite the White House’s wailings to the contrary, 2010 is becoming less and less about random musings such as “incumbent fatigue” or “blind frustration.”
No, this fomented anger is now crystallizing in the minds of many, and it goes straight to the door of the Oval Office.
The president’s ranks are thinning. With Sen. Arlen Specter’s defeat last Tuesday, he became the fourth Democrat in less than seven months to lose a race in which Mr. Obama became personally vested and involved.
An Associated Press analysis went so far as to claim Mr. Specter’s defeat was perhaps the worst outcome, with the president’s pick losing to another, more liberal Democrat, casting doubts on his influence both in his own party and a key battleground state. Even moderate Democrats such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas found themselves pushing back against Mr. Obama’s minions of labor, and still she failed to come out victorious, forced to compete again in a June runoff.
To put it bluntly, the president has lost all remnants of coattails from his historic victory in 2008. In fact, I’m not sure he still has his jacket left. As the election soothsayer Stu Rothenberg put it last week, it’s only going to get worse for Democrats as the weeks drag on. Mr. Rothenberg told Washington Times reporter David Eldridge to expect more Democratic seats once considered “safe” to move into more contested categories. “[I] still think the House is in play,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “I don’t see indications of any great Democratic surge — in fact there are some 70 Democratic seats that are now contested or not safe, to some degree.”
What the media are only starting to realize is last Tuesday’s elections (and the ones forthcoming) are reflecting several sentiments, but chief among them is a palpable anger toward this president’s policies. And the only way to stop that hemorrhaging is for Mr. Obama to take a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook. Remember in the days following his party’s ignominious defeat in 1994, Mr. Clinton uttered his famous “era of big government is over” line? Mr. Obama needs to give that same speech — today. Waiting until after the election will surely solidify his place in history as a one-term president. That’s the source of all this angst, and Mr. Obama ignores it at his own peril.
Indeed, the electoral landscape for Republican incumbents is better, but for how long? It took only a few months for Utah firebrands to rise up and oust Sen. Robert F. Bennett last month as well as Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate last week. There’s still plenty of time for activists, hungry for change, to shift gears on a candidate and toss him out, especially in states whose primaries run well into August and September.
Mr. Bennett’s failure to secure his party’s nomination reveals many truisms beginning to form during this election cycle. Some are accurate, but others are more of a reflection of the sitting senator and his own failings than some political juggernaut movement bending conservative candidates to its every whim.
Clearly, there is a deep and smoldering anti-incumbent mood swirling across the country. Frustration by the body politic is normal and even expected, particularly at a time when the economy is still barely recovering, and a president who promised so much has done so little to salve the nation’s woes. To enumerate the current situation, public approval ratings of Congress on the whole hover around 23 percent. That’s lower than the historic average of 34 percent. To me, that’s the public’s recognition of the unwillingness of Congress to rein in this current administration’s socialist agenda.
Surprisingly, those who are the most angry today are also some of the best organized. The national “tea party” movement is claiming credit for Mr. Bennett’s ousting and the ascension of Rand Paul, and leveraging the defeat to send a political message to other elected officials and their “soft” positions. As Brendan Steinhauser of the group told The Washington Post following the Bennett defeat, “[The tea party] is the center of American politics. It’s everything that we’ve been saying it is. It’s not just a protest movement; it’s a political force.”
In many respects, Mr. Steinhauser is right. The movement deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Yet it’s not entirely accurate to suggest that it single-handedly burned out Mr. Bennett’s career. He was covered in flammable liquid already; the tea party just lit the match.
Mr. Bennett’s troubles started years ago when he broke his own campaign pledge to term-limit himself and not seek re-election beyond two elections. Mr. Bennett went on to serve four terms, and that’s where he started to get cozy in his Senate digs. The senator sat on the powerful Appropriations Committee — a spending panel. He had the keys to the federal Treasury, and to many Utah voters, that was viewed as part of the problem.
Perhaps Mr. Bennett deluded himself into thinking he was OK by just showing up to work every day and waving the conservative banner with feigned righteousness. His comments following the loss betrayed that behavior: “Looking back on [the votes I cast], with one or two very minor exceptions,” he recalled, “I wouldn’t have cast them any differently even if I’d known at the time it would cost me my career.”
That attitude was the last straw to Utah voters. And it should signal to other Republican incumbents that the most important notion of “public service” rests in that second word — “service.” We have enough loafers sitting around their government desks, getting fat off the taxpayer dime. By God, we don’t need any more on Capitol Hill doing the same.
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