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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Anit-Incumbency: Thoughts on the Mood of the Electorate

Every few election cycles we hear the call for people to get rid of the current crop of politicians and bring in new ones. Pull out the popcorn and get ready to listen to some old chestnuts: Those politicians don’t listen. They’re corrupt. They don’t pay attention to our needs. They don’t even work for us. Let’s vote them out and get in some new blood who’ll work for us. These are the complaints heard ’round the country, from moderate Maine to arch-conservative Alaska. Aside from the political arguments for or against one party or another you’ll find the complaints to be remarkably similar when an anti-incumbency mood comes to town. There’s been a strong tide of anti-incumbency fever that’s swept the nation since 2008, making an even stronger appearance in the Federal 2010 mid-term elections. This is unusual in that it is a severe pendulum shift from ousting Republicans in 2008 to ousting Democrats in 2010. This year the mood has some similarities to the Republican wave in 1994, such as a Democrat in the White House and in charge of both houses of Congress, but it has some vital differences too: there is still a war on, the economic health of the country is considerably more grim, and right-wing media outlets and pundits are considerably louder and more shrill. Most of these factors will tend to help Republicans. The party out of power almost always picks up seats in the midterm elections, and they tend to do even better when times are tough. What has been remarkable has been the number of incumbent US Senators who have faced primary battles and lost. With the exception of Arlen Spector, a Republican-turned-Democrat who lost to a more liberal challenger, the Tea Party has taken over from establishment Republicans.This anti-incumbency tide affecting Massachusetts as well. Almost every Representative in our Congressional delegation, every one a Democrat, is looking at a Republican challenger this year. More Republicans are challenging Democrats for office than have in decades. Also, there are questions about whether the Democratic Party will manage to hold on to the seat held by retiring Representative William Delahunt. Massachusetts also has an unusually dynamic set of races for statewide offices this year: Governor Patrick, the first full-term governor to run for re-election in the past decade, has three strong opponents; Treasurer Tim Murray is not seeking re-election as Treasurer to make his own bid for the Governor’s office, leaving an open seat; Attorney General Martha Coakley will face a Republican challenger, likely in part due to her lackluster performance last January; and Auditor Joe DeNucci is retiring from office after 24 years, leaving his spot open as well.However, despite the anti-incumbency rhetoric that has been mostly Tea Partying around the country, many people still like their own incumbent representatives and officers. Polls have shown major gaps between the percentage of people who want to vote all the bums out and the percentage of people who want their own politicians to leave, in some cases exceeding twenty points. Only other people’s politicians are bums; theirs are angels. This holds true in Massachusetts as well, where most incumbent Representatives are looking at a relatively easy fight to hold on to their seat. There’s truth to the notion that incumbency can be problematic. Some politicians do seem to lose connection with their constituents and pay more attention to their donor lists and perks, much to the detriment of both the general public and public policy. Still, incumbency brings several factors to the table, like job experience. Would you rather have your trusted skilled professional work for you, or would you prefer an untested amateur who may be very bright but doesn’t know all the little tricks that come with experience? Another factor of incumbency is an established relationship with a known quantity. Ted Kennedy was trusted throughout the state. It took time for him to learn how to work through the Senate, but he learned and Massachusetts was the richer for it. Trust takes time to build. He built it. A third factor incumbency brings, at least in Congress, is seniority. John Olver is on the House Appropriations Committee, which means he can direct money to an economically-depressed district to help build it up. Should he somehow lose his seat, Massachusetts will for a time find itself one of the few states without a voice on the committee that invests Federal largesse.Do any incumbents deserve to be sent packing? Well, that is a question that is usually based on your political persuasion unless you have firm proof of incompetence or severe character deficiencies. Take the Attorney General race this year. Martha Coakley is vulnerable to a challenge after her failed bid for the US Senate. There are a number of people who feel she is out of touch with the mainstream, which to some extent is true. She was light on her knowledge of the Red Sox, for example, which did cost her in her Senate run. That does not address whether she is qualified as Attorney General, a role having very little to do with knowing who the starting lineup is. Most incumbents currently in state or Federal office are able to do their job credibly well and are, if not morally pure, at least personally acceptable. So are many of their challengers. Ultimately it depends on how much you back the person currently in the office. Do you like their policies? Have they provided constituent services to you or someone you know? Do they pay attention to you? Will they work for you? Do they work for you? Please think about who you want in office. Don’t wait until the last minute. Voting without learning about who you’ll put in office can have dangerous consequences, possibly even for yourself. While it is nearly impossible to find an elected official who will vote exactly the way you want every time, you should figure out who will align with your values and do a good job of it. Vote for them. Even if they are an incumbent.