Incumbents have reason to worry in November

Trouble ahead for self-serving politicians of the type epitomized by Arlen Specter

May 20, 2010|By Ron Smith

Let me begin with a confession: I voted for Arlen Specter in one of his five successful elections to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Pennsylvania. In my defense, the vote was accidental; I didn't mean to do it, but for a reason or reasons that remain unknown to me, my finger flipped up the tab next to his name and I then pulled the lever, finalizing this mistake. Luckily, he won by more than a single vote.

Senator Specter, turncoat extraordinaire, onetime Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat and finally turned out of office Tuesday at the tender age of 80, is, to me, the very epitome of the self-serving career politician who will do anything to keep his spotted hands on the levers of power. He even admitted as much when he changed parties last year, saying he did so because he knew he'd lose his bid for a sixth term to former GOP Congressman Pat Toomey in the primary election. The man who beat Senator Specter was two-term Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, who will run against Mr. Toomey, an easy winner in the Republican primary.

Rid of the specter of Specter, we can expect the U.S. Senate to have a lot of new faces when it begins the 2011 session. Incumbency has lost a lot of its luster in this time of voter unease. The peasantry is restless, unsure of the future, worried about pension promises that might be broken, tired of being bilked by the bankers and milked by the government to fund lives of ease for their betters. History tells us peasants — and the bourgeoisie — revolt every now and then. Think the French Revolution, or our own. Think October 1917 in Russia. In our own time of disillusion, we get a vote, a bloodless way of changing things, altering a system too bloated to continue standing on its own.

There has been a torrent of analysis/spin since the results of this week's elections became known. The resounding win by Ron Paul's son, Rand, in the GOP senatorial primary in Kentucky represents a huge initial election victory for the tea partiers. They had previously denied three-term Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah renomination, but the Paul defeat of establishment-backed Trey Grayson, seen as a rising star in the party until this thrashing, was the first win the tea partiers can truly claim as their own in an actual election. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, made some big claims about the message sent by his victory.

In his acceptance speech he said, in part: "I have a message from the tea party. A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back. We've come to take our government back from the special interests who think that the federal government is their own personal ATM. … Washington is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning, and this tea party movement is a message to Washington that we're unhappy and we want things done differently."

Democratic officials think not. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, thinks his party's nominee, state Attorney General Jack Conway, will have an easier time against Dr. Paul than he would have had against Mr. Grayson. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called Dr. Paul an "extreme candidate" who used a small part of the electorate to win over Mr. Grayson but won't be able to duplicate that in the general election. An AP story was headlined, "Democrats Relish Paul's GOP Win in KY. Senate Race."

The tea party activists claim their movement is not party-specific and that they can win elections in November. None will be more important than the one in Kentucky. Already, the primary wins of Dr. Paul and Mr. Sestak are reflective of an anti-incumbent passion that shows little sign of abating.

The axiom has it that voters have a short memory. In prosperous times, that's been proven true time and again. Now, with the ability of voters to bypass the major media by using the Internet, listening to talk radio and interacting on Facebook and other of the new social media, their memories seem to have lengthened. So long, Arlen.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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