October 23, 2006
Lackluster Leadership and the Coming Election BattleBy Rosslyn Smith
Does a bad year for Republicans automatically translate into a good year for Democrats? Perhaps not. No matter who ends up controlling the House and Senate, the behavior of both the left and right wing fringe elements all but guarantees that both parties will end up losers in the minds of a good many voters. Win or lose come November 7, as a party Republicans have to decide to do better.
With all the talk of a disillusioned GOP base, everyone seems to have overlooked that turnout in Democrat primaries was not exceptionally high this year. Primary turnout is often a highly accurate precursor of party interest in the general election. Nor have I seen first hand evidence of much excitement among mainstream Democrats and even less among independents.
Not that I can blame the Democrats. A trio of only marginally competent, ethically challenged incumbent governors to reelect in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin and empty suits like Cantwell, Menedez, and Stabenow to return to the Senate makes generating excitement a challenge for the best campaign pro. Nor has there been much star power among the highly anticipated Democrat newcomers. Jack Carter in Nevada and Bob Casey, Jr. in Pennsylvania have not distinguished themselves as campaigners, despite their political pedigrees. James Webb in Virginia was supposed to be a breath of fresh political air, a smart conservative Southern Democrat gentleman cast from the old mold. His once distinguished reputation as a man of honor and principal will probably never recover from the tactics of his supporters.
Minnesotans may send the lackluster Amy Klobuchar to the U.S. Senate, but there she is highly unlikely to attain the stature of Paul Wellstone, Walter Mondale or Hubert Humphrey. Only Harold Ford in Tennessee seemed to be running a fairly smart campaign, that is until he crashed a press conference being held by his opponent, Bob Corker on Friday. Such actions reek of last minute desperation, not the poise one expects of a purported frontrunner.
And finally, let's not forget that 2006 was the year that the Democrats were to take back the statehouse in California. With Arnold now seen as an all but sure winner and with Feinstein cruising to reelection to the Senate, any excitement in California will come only from local races. That is also the case in my own North Carolina, where there are no statewide races on the ballot. What little excitement I see is focused on county races where the issues are those of administrative competence, not ideology.
What I have seen is a growing feeling that both parties are being driven too much by their extremes, that control has been ceded to a vocal minority vastly more concerned with playing politics than with sound government and who, in many cases, are profoundly out of touch with reality. Negative ads and those ubiquitous prerecorded phone messages are turning people off to both parties. Voters are asking if we are supposed to be at war, why are so many of our leaders acting like the domestic opposition is the enemy, remaining wedded to outmoded ideas, focusing on trivialities and obsessing over the perks of office?
While we have been hearing a lot about the extreme voices at Democrat Underground, MoveOn.org and the Daily Kos all year long, only recently has the conservative side to this story come to light. Many represent established interests who feel they were the ones responsible for earlier conservative victories and complain they now get too little say in party affairs. Like the nutroots attack on Joe Lieberman, these angry voices from the right seem quite willing to eat their own in their narcissistic certainty that their limited view is the only one that is valid. They know in their gut that a Republican party purged of all moderation and dissent will then be free to steamroll to victory in the next general election. And should it all not happen the way that they plan, it will be the fault of those who did not follow their political advice, not the quality of that advice itself.
I was astounded by a recent e—mail from an old friend I had first met in 1994 when we were volunteers in a state legislative race. This woman and her husband regularly donate to conservative candidates and are equally generous with their time in a manner to make most of us blush with shame. In her e—mail, my friend noted that paid operatives of a far right wing organization had been posting on one of her favorite Internet political forums. There she has been repeatedly and viciously slimed for disagreeing with them. Here is what she wrote about those who claim to be the only true conservatives, who use offensive language when discussing immigration and who call any who disagree with them a "liberal troll"
When this friend moved to Georgia in early 1996. I sent her a Newt Gingrich gargoyle as a housewarming gift. That Christmas she sent the gargoyle back to me autographed by Newt himself! When someone who went campaigning door to door with the Gingrich family now calls herself a moderate because of the way the conservative fringe is behaving, we have a kook problem every bit as big as the one the Democrats have.
In 1992, we saw enough disgruntled voices on the far right muddy the water to the point were some voters actually thought Bill Clinton was the more conservative of the candidates after his Sister Souljah moment and his (later ignored) promise that abortion should be safe legal and rare. Others cast a protest vote for Perot as someone who was supposedly above petty politics. With their use of stealth candidates, the Democrats are trying to run to the right of some Republican incumbents this year, too. Even with the help of the far right wing saboteurs who promise to stay home and despite all the dismal numbers, I am not yet sure they will succeed.
Besides not seeing all that much enthusiasm for actual Democrat candidates, one factor most analysts predicting a wholesale change in the House have missed is that ever since the 1990 census, congressional districts have been gerrymandered to create the maximum number of seats for Blacks and Hispanics. Gerrymandering by race also built a strong pro—incumbent bias into the system. Almost every Congressional District is now drawn to strongly favor one party or the other based on the analysis of past election trends and demographics on a precinct by precinct basis. In urban areas this can be an apartment building by apartment building basis!
Conventional wisdom says the reason the House swung to the Republicans in 1994 was voter dissatisfaction with Clinton and Gingrich's Contract with America. These had influence, but Clinton had no Congressional coattails in 1992 in part because the new realities of racial representation were already being felt. That year and again in 1994 a large number of white Democrat incumbents, especially in the South, looked at their newly drawn districts that trended Republican after being shorn of their Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Many of those incumbents decided to retire. The rest got beaten and those districts have stayed Republican every since. The mantra about the sixth year of a Presidency always being bad for the party in the White House ignores this more recent and systemic bias towards single party, pro incumbent districts, the byproduct of increasing minority representation in Congress.
Another factor is that campaign experience has taught me that polling in Congressional races can be far less accurate than polling in a statewide race. That is because voters have little knowledge of Congressional candidates and the issues until the final days of the campaign. This is because compared to Senators and Governors, Representatives are the poor little orphans of political media coverage. In many media markets few incumbent Congressmen outside of party leadership get any media coverage until right before an election — unless they have been involved in a scandal. With some media markets containing as many as a dozen or more Congressional seats, this lack of coverage is hardly surprising. The existence of several Congressional districts within a single media market also makes the use of TV commercials too expensive for many campaigns except on a targeted basis. When voters are asked about candidates with whom they are not terribly familiar, the results are always less reliable than polls for races that get wall—to—wall media coverage. When a poll is designed to elicit a forced choice over an undecided, the reliability factor falls even further.
The final factor is that the GOP has developed a tremendous GOTV system. When I started volunteering in political campaigns in 1978, it was said that the Democrats had the volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors while the Republicans wrote the big checks and hired others to campaign for them. In recent years this has changed. The Republican National Committee has done a great job. I have already gotten several brochures in the mail and almost daily e—mails from my Congressman, the state party and the RNC. . More importantly, the phone calls from the party have been from real people who live in the area, not recorded messages from outsiders. Thanks to the rampant gerrymandering of Congressional Districts, the time honored Democrat tactic for getting their less than unenthusiastic voters to the polls, rounding them up and busing them en masse, now only works in statewide races.
Regardless of how this election turns out, this cycle has shown that there is a serious need to improve Congressional leadership, elevate the level of the debate and to give the voters' a better choice of candidates.
Much has been written about Glenn Reynolds' "pre—mortem" at Instapundit. Reynolds, a libertarian, dislikes the way domestic spending has grown under Bush, but as snobbish academic elitist he also tends to dismiss much of the political talent in both parties as second or third rate. Another non—conservative blogger who avidly supports the war on terror, Roger L.Simon, is cheering on Joe Lieberman because Simon thinks the grip of the two political parties on the process needs to be broken. Simon's take has been a pox on both parties for listening too much to their most extreme members and for elevating such non inspiring figures as Denny Hastert, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to leadership positions.
Both Reynolds and Simon have a point. Lackluster leadership is a bipartisan problem in Washington. Candidate recruitment for many House and Senate races in both parties has been less than inspiring, too, with both parties having more than their share of empty suits. The apparent lack of talent on both side of the aisle justifies a lack of faith in our political parties by the vast majority of voters who are not overly partisan.
While the Internet offers a handy megaphone to those on the extremes, there is no reason it cannot also be used as a tool to identify a better class of candidates. Just as some in the blog sphere have dedicated themselves to original reporting, a step well beyond their initial fact checking of the mainstream media, perhaps some political bloggers interested in good sound majority government can add to their to do list identifying those in their ranks and among their contacts who might make good candidates for public office.
There is also a need for more on line political venues dedicated not to ideologic purity but as a rallying point for those who understand that elected politics, ultimately the art of persuading 50% plus one to come around to your way of seeing things, is something best accomplished with reason and gentle pats of encouragement, not brickbats and slime.
I have been on search committees to find candidates for local races and it is hard work. Many who are interested in running seek out politics for all the wrong reasons, while those who seem ideal often have far more lucrative prospects in the private sector or don't care to get into the mud slinging matches so common of late.
Currently the blogsphere is full of bright voices pontificating on the many failings of those who do take the risks of trying to make our government work. I believe it was former majority leader Dick Armey who said that he first decided to enter electoral politics when his wife got sick of listening to him talking back to the TV set night after night during the news and challenged him If you're so damn smart, maybe you should run for office yourself and see if you can do better.
Ladies and gentlemen, are any of you ready to take the Mrs. Armey's challenge? Can those who opine so freely about all that is wrong in Washington do better themselves at running the political process? More importantly, do they even have the guts to try?
Rosslyn Smith is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.