"There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington . . . but the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us and hasn't for a long time." Barack Obama, 2007
If the results of last week's "mini-Super Tuesday" primary elections are any indication, the future isn't looking good for congressional incumbents facing reelection in 2010. Despite reelection rates that average well above 90% in most cases, this first crop of underdog candidates has defied the odds, riding a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that landed them in office, and their opponents out in the cold. It remains to be seen, however, whether this newest generation of congressional "reformers" will actually strike a new tone in Washington, or whether they will go the way of so many before them.
In other words, is this change we can really believe in, or merely the same old song and dance?
We all remember, after all, that a key strategy of the Obama campaign was to portray him as an outsider, a man untainted by the rotten, self-serving politics of beltway insiders, a beacon of hope in the midst of a sea of stultifying partisanship and cynicism. This tactic was employed with particular success against Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both of whom, Obama insisted, if elected President would be certain to continue "the same failed policies of the Bush administration." Whether this accusation was correct or not, it is widely recognized that the same anti-Bush, anti-Washington sentiment that fueled the electoral upheavals of 2006 helped propel Barack Obama into office in 2008.
This time, however, President Obama and his political allies – people like John Corzine, Martha Coakley, and most recently, Arlen Specter – are being cast as the "insiders" while people like Scott Brown, Joe Sestak, and Rand Paul are benefiting from their reputations as "anti-establishment" candidates. Speaking after their primary victories last week, both Sestak and Paul could have been reading straight from President Obama's campaign playbook:
"This is what democracy looks like," Sestak said to a crowd of cheering supporters. "A win for the people, over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C."
"I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words," Paul said at his victory rally. "We've come to take our government back."
There was a reason that this message resonated in 2008 and a reason it is resonating today. For too long, every political candidate has campaigned as a Jefferson Smith and ended up operating as a Jim Taylor, and the people are fed up.
Why does this keep happening? Why can't our elected officials say what they mean, mean what they say, and just do their jobs with honesty and integrity? Why are the American people daily confronted with news of another scandal, another affair, another investigation on Capitol Hill? Why are our concerns and priorities so readily sacrificed on the altar of politics-as-usual?
Infuriating as it is, it's not difficult to understand how our representatives are so easily blown off track despite what are often the best of intentions. Quite simply, they are seduced by the romance of life in Washington: They are wined and dined by lobbyists, their egos stroked, affirmed, and manipulated – all in pursuit of their vote. No wonder their sense of self-importance is inflated! On top of this, they are away from their families, friends, and churches – away from all the anchoring elements in life that keep one humble, moral, and accountable. Every decision becomes one of political calculation, and "doing the right thing" often must be weighed against the advantages of abandoning principles or cutting a deal. What should be an attitude of stewardship and a spirit of servanthood all too easily mutates into an attitude of ownership and a spirit of entitlement. This kind of slow corruption, which only metastasizes with incumbency, is often the first reason that proponents of term limits cite as a reason to pass a law preventing career politicians.
Do these anti-establishment candidates really have what it takes to withstand the siren song of Washington's cabal of special interests? It's too early to tell, but one thing is certain: The people will be watching. As one constituent famously told Arlen Specter last summer at a town hall meeting, "A sleeping giant has been awakened." As long as our representatives continue to neglect their constituents back home in favor of furthering their political careers, the voters will be more than happy to keep throwing the bums out.
We won't need a law establishing term limits if the voters begin enforcing them at the ballot box!