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On Saturday, May 8, an extraordinary event took place. United States Senator Bob Bennett, a 3-term Republican, failed to make the cut for his party's primary. Not only was he not nominated to run, he did not make the cut to get nominated. He was a distant third. Two Tea Party candidates beat him.
Bob Bennett is a legacy Senator. His father served as Senator before him.
This was an insurrection.
Bennett had turned squishy years ago. He had an undeserved reputation as a conservative. He backed the TARP bailout in 2008. Then he backed Obama's health insurance bill. That did it. "No mas!" The folks back home sent him a message: "You're out of here!"
Then, three days later, across the country, it happened again. Congressman Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, was smashed in the Democratic Party's primary, 56% to 44%. He had held that seat for 14 terms -- almost 28 years. He had supported Obama's health care bill. He was one of the Stupak Seven. When Stupak folded, Mollohan folded. That ended his political career.
This is a bipartisan insurrection. It indicates that the voters have finally had enough. It may represent a turning point in American politics.
Think about what these two votes mean. In American politics, voters decide between two parties. Politicians' campaign strategies are targeted at the 80% of the voters who are in play. The 10% at each end of the political spectrum are either true believers or staunch enemies. They are ignored. They get platitudes from the candidates, but that's all. A politician who campaigns on a straight ideological platform is extremely rare. Ron Paul is such a politician, but how representative is he of politics in general?
As soon as a person is elected to Congress, his party supports him thereafter, no matter what. Local politics is seen as "our man in Washington vs. their would-be interloper." The faithful party member now overlooks every deviant vote by the incumbent. The incumbent is always seen as better than the other party's candidate, no matter who that candidate is.
At the level of the Presidency, there are enough independents and enough marginal voters to enable a popular candidate to win votes from members of the other party. Think of Jimmy Cater in 1980. Reagan overwhelmed him. Carter lost votes from his own party.
The nation is really divided. We have never seen before what happened under Clinton and Bush II: a pair of two-term Presidents from rival parties. There is now ebb and flow at the national level. No party has a lock on the Presidency.
This ebb and flow has not existed locally within a party. Once elected, a Congressman or a Senator who decides to run again is going to get the nomination of his party at the next election. The faithful conclude, "Our man, right or wrong." Bob Bennett and Alan Mollohan discovered that this tradition has ended.
It ended without warning. Bennett did not figure out what was about to happen to him until the last minute. To save his candidacy, he invited Mitt Romney to introduce him at the convention. How out of touch can a politician be? Mitt Romney represents the Eastern Republican Establishment. He was governor of Massachusetts. He passed a health care law similar to Obama's. That Bennett thought Romney could help him with the Republicans back home indicates how completely out of touch he had become.
Yes, Romney is a Mormon. Yes, Utah is Mormon. In the good old days, the folks back home would have thought, "It's us vs. them." But with his voting record, Bennett had moved into the camp of "them." He did not perceive this until it was too late.
In a CNN interview with a man identified as the founder of the Tea Party movement in Utah, the interviewer with the flowing hair tried to identify Bennett as a conservative. She reeled off names of supporting right-wing Beltway groups. The man being interviewed shrugged this off. "It isn't a matter of conservatism," he said. "It's a matter of responsibility." Bennett should not have voted to bail out failing companies, he said. But, she hastened to ask, "should a man's career end because of one vote?" His answer was perfect: "His career WILL end with that vote." And it did. CNN then switched to Bennett, who defended that vote. He is gone. The video is worth watching.
The incumbents are facing an insurrection. A fundamental assumption of all Congressional politics is being called into question: guaranteed re-nomination of incumbents. This means that the folks back home are going to nominate newcomers who are dependent on swing voters in a way unseen before in American politics. There will be no more of "our man, right or wrong."
This means that voters back home are so angry that they would prefer to lose the November election with a candidate who reflects their views rather than win with an incumbent who doesn't. It means that the politics of the Capitol Hill club is no longer secure. It means that the Old Boy Network of incumbents on the Hill can no longer secure automatic re-nomination.
If this continues, the nation's political system will change. Incumbents will have to pay attention to the opinions of the voters in their parties in their districts. This places power in the hands of dedicated minorities back home who are willing to send a message to their men in Washington: "You will remain our man for only as long as you vote our way on the issues that matter to us." There will be no more free rides at the nomination level.
This is a positive development. It introduces an element of uncertainty into national politics. The informal alliances on Capitol Hill will be undermined as never before. The ever- popular game of logrolling will get more risky. Logrolling is this: "I'll vote for your pork- filled bill if you'll vote for mine." Incumbents play this game for pork's sake. But if voters back home are angrier about pork-for-all than they are about insufficient-pork-for-us, the political structure will begin to shift rightward. This will fundamentally change the rules of the game.
TARP AND THE MSM
I find it hard to believe that voters are finally willing to throw out an incumbent in their party because he voted the wrong way on some pork- filled law. But TARP really infuriated voters. In October 2008, voters were opposed to the bailouts. As one North Carolina Congressmen put it, his district was divided 50-50 between "no" and "hell no." But Paulson's warning of imminent collapse carried the day. It also carried Obama to victory a month later.
The general rule is this: voters forget in six months. They do not bear political grudges. The general rule got broken with TARP.
It will get broken with Obama's health insurance law, too. As the costs rise, the public will be reminded. When I say "the public," I mean the swing voters in both parties who are hopping mad about the law and willing to exact revenge.
Political revenge has been rare in American politics. That is because voters did forget. They moved on. They could be manipulated by the media to get them all in a dither about the latest political issue. But the Web is changing all this. The Web lets hopping mad people stay hopping mad. The mainstream media no longer control the flow of information. They no longer determine what issues will get attention by the public. With respect to the swing voters who can withhold the nomination from incumbents, the Web has become the crucial factor. The mainstream media no longer call the shots.
These is another factor to consider: single- issue voting. The single-issue voter is the bane of a politician's career. This voter will vote against anyone who votes against his issue. He also keeps informed about how politicians have been voting.
Congress has fought against this by concealing votes whenever possible. The language of bills to consider an issue is confusing. Sometimes, Congressmen vote by voice rather than by having their votes recorded. This policy has been facilitated by the local press, which could always choose not to write about a Congressman's unpopular vote.
Today, because of the Web, it is difficult for politicians to conceal their votes from special-interest groups and single-issue voters. They must therefore make choices regarding which groups to alienate. This in turn makes politics more divisive.
HOW TO INFLICT PAIN
An old friend of mine is retired California state Senator Bill Richardson. He taught me a great deal about local politics. He is the founder of Gun Owners of America. He told me that politicians want to avoid pain. If you can create pain for them, you can get them to change on specific issues. He said that one of his direct- mail strategies was to find a weak position in the voting record of a state representative who was in favor of gun control. In the man's district, he was not in trouble about his votes on gun control. So, Richardson would find an issue that did put him at risk. Then he would do mass mailings into the man's district that focused on his unpopular votes. The guy always knew who was creating the problem for him. Richardson made sure he knew. Richardson would then offer a deal: no more mailings in exchange for some crucial vote on gun ownership. He got votes this way.
The cover provided to local politicians by the mainstream media is worth less and less, because the mainstream media are dying. These media outlets are not being replaced by media outlets that gain the readership locally of large numbers of people. Instead, local readers focus on whatever single issue that motivates them most. If a politician deviates from the acceptable line -- not a party line -- the voters in his district who are committed to the position find out.
These voters have generally not been political activists involved in precinct politics. But in the last year, the spending issue has mobilized a previously unorganized group of single-issue voters. Because spending encompasses everything that civil government does, the Tea Party movement is a major threat to politicians who are always ready to vote for more spending, which is most of them.
The first two sacrificial goats on the Tea Party's altar are Bennett and Mollohan. Because they are in different political parties, different regions, and different-colored states -- red and blue -- their defeat represents a serious threat to politics-as-usual. Defeat at the primary level is not supposed to happen.
There is no media protection for politicians now. They can run, but they can't hide. In the case of Bennett and Mollohan, they can't even run. Their careers as politicians are over.
SEND THEM A MESSAGE!
That phrase was made popular by Gov. George Wallace in the 1972 election. So was his other phrase: "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties."
Today, the Tea Party movement rests squarely on these two phrases. The defeat of Bennett and Mollohan has sent a message to Washington. It is the only message 80% of Congress understands: fear. They can see that their parties may not support them this year. They also see that a refusal to oppose new spending bills will lead to their departure from Washington.
This is going to change the political landscape in the United States. The Tea Party is in a position to do what Bill Richardson recommended: impose pain. Politicians respond to pain. The greatest pain is the loss of votes back home. Nothing else comes close.
The two primaries produced results that are historically unprecedented. These two primaries were preceded by the failure of Gov. Bill Crist of Florida to receive the Republican Party's nomination for U.S. Senator. He says that he will run as an independent. This may kill the campaign of fiscal conservative Marco Rubio in November. But Rubio can get nominated again. He will not be seen as a loser; he will be seen as the victim of a spoiler. Crist is finished politically. The Republicans will resent him for not bowing out gracefully.
There is nothing wrong with spoiling, if you can continue to kill a party's chances at the general election. At some point, the party's hierarchy will have to work out a deal. Otherwise, they are doomed to defeat. But a one- shot spoiling campaign is suicidal. It kills the future threat. It sends this message: "These people don't have the votes. Ignore them." Crist is a threat this time only because he is the governor. He will not be governor again.
The Tea Party is sending a message across the country to both political parties: "Ignore us at your peril. We are in a position to end your careers." Hard-core big spenders in safe districts will not pay any attention. But without the votes of their vulnerable peers, they will not be able to ram through big-spending bills.
The ability of the Democrats to get votes for any new spending bills has been drastically reduced over the last week. Members of Congress in marginal districts will hesitate to commit political suicide. Also, there will be more announcements of long-term Democrats who plan to retire. No one wants to be publicly defeated by some upstart. It is easier to retire on a fat Congressional pension.
The familiar game of politics is now vulnerable to upstarts who are motivated by one issue: reduce government spending. They cannot be easily bought off. They are not pork-seekers. If they stick to their guns and get organized locally, they will be able to inflict enormous pain on incumbents. This process has begun.
I think the next Congress will be less ready to pass huge spending bills. Obama's domestic agenda was thwarted over the last week in Utah and West Virginia. It will be thwarted even more in November.
This will not be enough to save the country from a flood of red ink. That ink was guaranteed in 1965, When Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law. It was guaranteed by Bush II's prescription drug subsidy. The killer programs are at present untouchable. But, at the margin, the President's agenda is in trouble. He will be blamed for the deficit. He will be blamed for the costs of the health insurance law.
Mollohan's defeat was more significant than Bennett's. It sent Democrat incumbents a message: "No mas!" If a politician in a safe Democratic district thinks he can recruit volunteers in a self-immolation program of additional Federal spending, he will find that in January 2011, there will be far fewer members of his party willing to join him . . . or her. Nancy Pelosi will have a harder time rounding up the votes. She may even become the Minority Leader.
That thought cheers me up. I am a fan of the politics of revenge.