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So Far This Election Year, 'Nice' Is Not So Good

Tea Party favorite Rand Paul rode a wave of anger to grab the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky.
Ed Reinke
Tea Party favorite Rand Paul rode a wave of anger to grab the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky.

Looking for a theme in the results of the recent congressional primaries? How about: More angry voters are choosing more angry politicians to represent them.

Sure, there is an anti-incumbency wind in the trees. Arlen Specter (D-PA), ensconced for 30 years in the Senate, lost to upstart Joe Sestak. And incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) is in a tough runoff as she seeks her third term.

There is an anti-establishment bent, as well. Tea Party proponent Rand Paul defeated the state's Ivy Leaguer attorney general Trey Grayson -- the Chosen One of the party pooh-bahs -- to win the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky.


Writing in Newsday, G. Evans Witt referred to the dominant theme of last week's primaries as "the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington wave that cost one U.S. senator his seat, tossed a second into a runoff and gave the Tea Party its first major-party Senate nominee." Witt has the data to back up his observations; he is head of the political polling firm Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

Pundit Matt Miller echoed Witt's sentiment. "We're entering a period in which anti-incumbent fervor will become the default attitude of an electorate whose economic prospects have dimmed," Miller wrote in the May 20 Washington Post.

Anti-incumbent fervor is not a new movement in politics. "Throw the bums out!" is a time-honored battle cry. But there seems to be a contemporary wrinkle. Angry voters don't just want to replace incumbents; they want to retool Washington altogether -- with hard-nosed partisans. Or at least with representatives who are not as interested in getting along as they are in getting their way.

To this new breed of politician, conciliation is an old-school notion. To them, there is no polite in politics. To them, the ends justify the meanness.

A Year To Remember


"We already know from history what happens when a people's sense of national potency is shaken and they face economic hardship," says Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist and politician. "That's what happened in Germany after its humiliating defeat in World War I and painful war reparations exacted by the victors, followed by the Great Depression."

Immelman, an associate professor of psychology at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in St. Cloud, Minn., ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Michele Bachmann in the Republican primary of 2008. He plans to run against her again this year as an independent.

Immelman continues his history lesson. "Fast-forward to the United States in 2001 and the attacks of 9/11, which shook our sense of impregnability, and then getting bogged down for nearly a decade in two wars we can't seem to win -- in the classic sense of a quick and decisive victory. And on top of that, the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. In short, you have a recipe for lashing out in anger."

To represent that anger, voters are sending angry pols to Congress. When Washington radio show host Tony Kornheiser asked Chuck Todd, NBC News political editor, to pinpoint the theme of the 2010 primary results a couple of days after the election, Todd said, "There is a thread with everything."

The 2010 thread, he said, can be traced back to the special election victory of Scott Brown, the first Republican to be sent to the Senate from Massachusetts in nearly 40 years. And even, to some extent, to the election of President Obama in 2008. "Everybody's tired of the same old folks here in Washington," Todd said.

"There's a thread here in this instance that makes 2010 different, and I think the guy who beat Specter, Joe Sestak, and Rand Paul -- neither one of them were the likable guys. Specter and this Trey Grayson guy were the likable guys."

But, Todd said, "this public is angry and frustrated, so you've heard of The Year of the Woman, you've heard of The Year of This-and-That -- this is The Year of the A-Hole."

And, he added quickly, "I mean this in a nice way."

Todd went on to say that there are those who characterize Sestak and Paul (son of Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul) as people who do not plan to put a premium on cooperation when they get to Congress and "the public hears this … and says, 'Good. I want to send someone to Washington who's not going to be a go-along, get-along -- who's going to make folks a little bit uncomfortable.' "

Come November, Todd said, there might be some intriguing new characters on Capitol Hill. Rand Paul, Joe Sestak and Linda McMahon, Republican candidate for the Senate from Connecticut, Todd said, are all people who are willing to buck the party leadership and speak their minds, regardless of political consequence.

"People like determined candidates. They feel they have an agenda and can make a difference," says Elliott Curson, a longtime Pennsylvania media consultant who helped Ronald Reagan get elected in 1980.

Ways And Meanness

Congress has long had members who are considered irascible. In 2006, Washingtonian magazine asked Capitol Hill staffers to rate members of Congress. The meanest was Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). Ironically, Arlen Specter came in third.

Curson says Specter lost this time around because of voters' anger -- at Specter. "Any qualified candidate, one on one, could have beaten Specter," Curson says. To Chuck Todd, Specter is nice compared with Sestak.

The nicest senator on Washingtonian's 2006 list, by the way, was Lincoln, the Arkansas senator who is in jeopardy of losing her party's nomination in a June 8 runoff.

Just before the 2000 election, when a Scripps Howard poll suggested that most American voters preferred a likable personality to intelligence in a candidate, John B. Anderson, history professor at the College of the Holy Cross and a former Democratic organizer in Massachusetts, observed that in times of prosperity it's easier for sanguine, satisfied voters to elect an easygoing person. "They don't see imminent danger to the nation," Anderson said, "so likability is attractive to them." George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as the compassionate conservative who could bring both sides of the aisle together.

Then is the converse true? In these treacherous times of national security concerns and economic turmoil, is likability less attractive to irate, irritated voters?

There has always been anger among a certain percentage of the electorate, says political strategist Daniel Fee, who helped get Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell re-elected in Pennsylvania in 2006. But "are people more frustrated and are they looking for elected officials/candidates to embody that feeling? Yep, they sure are. They clearly are holding incumbents liable for the mess we're in, both nationally and in almost every state and municipality."

For years, "the importance of being good managers of government was dismissed as people went for sound bites and easy-to-understand platitudes," Fee says. "People are finally looking around, realizing that many of the problems are not 'manageable' and there needs to be real change. And they are taking it out both on the people who should have been paying more attention when these problems were happening, but also on people who seem to not be taking those problems seriously."

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