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On Super Tuesday, Anti-Incumbent really Means Anti-Moderate

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the upcoming elections. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

It has become the conventional wisdom that this is a bad year for incumbents on the ballot. There is an anti-Washington wave on the horizon headed for the scums in Capitol Hill. This conventional wisdom is a parallel script close enough to the truth, but it is not the whole truth because many of the challengers on the ballot next Tuesday aren’t exactly non-incumbents who haven’t had any dalliance with power or Washington.

In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln is seeking a third term in the Senate. Her formally non-incumbent challenger, Lt Governor Bill Halter, is no stranger to Washington, however. While Lincoln was at the Senate, Halter worked for the Senate Finance Committee, the OMB, and was then appointed to be the Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. In Kentucky, Rand Paul (son of 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul) is running against Secretary of State Trey Grayson (who has been endorsed by Senator Mitch McConnell), but it is unclear who is the incumbent here since neither have held elected office in Washington and while the latter may be the establishment candidate, the former can be said to be an incumbent in the familial-dynastic sense. And perhaps in the hottest race of the all and the one in which the conventional wisdom has particularly taken hold, in Pennsylvania, Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tough primary challenge from Representative Joe Sestak. Sestak is a young-ish second-term member of congress, but he is not exactly a non-incumbent.

The relevant binary on Super Tuesday is not incumbent versus non-incumbent, but between ideologues and pragmatists. In each electoral battleground on Super Tuesday will be a candidate who represents the ideological purity of the Left or Right, and a moderate candidate who, having worked in Washington, has had to make a couple of compromises in her/his career in order to get legislation passed.

Anti-moderate political appeals have traction this year not only because it is primary season and primary voters tend to be more informed and issue-focused, but because the electorate this year is especially apprehensive and nervous about the state of the economy. Political challengers on the Left and the Right have become more insistent on the wisdom of their principles because they believe that they can ride into power by proffering certainty – a return to first principles – in an age of anxiety and uncertainty.

To the embittered Right, Washington represents big government and spending, paternalism, and hubris. To the disenchanted Left, Washington is a place where politicians come to sell out on their principles, a place where corrupt bargains are made and liberal dreams are vanquished. So while the embittered Right charges that government has run too far to the left, the disenchanted Left charges that government has made too many handshakes with the Right, which is why both are in agreement that government, and hence incumbents, have failed us. Hence MoveOn.org and NARAL Pro-Choice America has endorsed Joe Sestak over Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, and why the Tea Party Movement has endorsed Rand Paul over Secretary of State Trey Grayson in Kentucky.

If incumbents want to want to stay in office this year, they need to address voter anxiety, not just voter anger. The proper antidote to anxiety is not the false security that comes from ideological purity and insistence, but the calm which comes from knowing that perfection is a Trojan horse which stands in the way of delivering the good-enough in Washington.

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