Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Mad as hell

Q: What's a politician to do? Voters rejected the incumbents in this week's primaries in Pennsylvania and Kentucky (and Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces a runoff), shirking experience for new faces. What is so attractive about upstarts? In your experience, are you more likely to achieve success as a wise insider or a brash outsider?

Outsiders shake things up. Insiders get stuff done. Outsiders bring fresh ideas. Insiders grow complacent. Outsiders have steep learning curves. Insiders can cut to the chase. Outsiders become insiders the minute they are sworn into office. Insiders can quickly become outsiders in electorate mood swings.

Americans have notoriously short attention spans and equally shallow loyalties to politicians. A nanosecond ago Barack Obama was the darling of change; now he's the establishment.

When things are going reasonably well for the average citizen -- jobs are good, we feel secure -- the electorate shows an amazing willingness to stick with the same leaders, even those who appear to be roues or bumblers. Hence, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were back-to-back two-term presidents. Voters overlooked Clinton's indiscretions because the economy was so good; voters forgave W. his apparent incompetence because they were scared.

But with the economy tanking and the wars on multiple fronts achieving nothing, the electorate stampeded to change -- only to feel completely let down when President Obama failed to end the wars, stop terrorism, fix the economy, restart the housing boom, ensure full employment, stop BP from despoiling the oceans and stop NBC from canceling Law & Order.

The current anti-incumbent mood is a temper tantrum by people who are "mad as hell and not going to take it any more" -- even though they may not know what "it" should look like if the politicians got "it" right. How else to explain Rand Paul's victory?

Let's not read too much into Arlen Specter's loss, though. Pennsylvania Democrats sent a message that they won't embrace a Republican in a donkey suit, no matter how much of a donkey (or part thereof) he made himself to be.

Blanche Lincoln's close call in the primary seems to be due, in part, to her centrist politics coupled with her late lurch to the left. Even though voters put up with a great deal of insincerity, they prefer it to be done with a bit more style.

But the electorate right now is also flexing the muscle of independence over established party lines, and this is more likely to benefit upstarts than incumbents. The real loser, however, might be the two-party system that is under serious attack by the Tea Party and the independent mood.

Good government must be about a lot more than momentary popularity, however, and the real problem with the current mood is that no administration is likely to have the time to create sustainable change, which takes longer than the two-year cycles of congressional elections that are the bellwether of the political mood between presidential elections.

From environmental catastrophes to the economic disaster spreading now in Europe to the ongoing asymmetrical threats of terrorism, the current administration is stretched thin by these large issues even as Obama, et al. know that what voters really care about are job, homes, jobs and more jobs.

If Obama cannot deliver on a stronger domestic agenda for improved economic security soon, then he will also have a hard time staying in town long enough to be a truly entrenched incumbent, which for modern presidents is the length of two terms, a fairly modest eight years.

In fact, term limits for presidents may be the best political idea that American voters had in the 20th Century, with all due respect to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose four terms prompted the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution establishing the two-term limit.

The 22nd Amendment clearly favors outsiders in the presidency. Too bad Congress does not have enough guts to take the next logical step to apply term limits to the House and Senate. The absence of term limits calcifies incumbents and makes outsiders resort to ever-more dramatic challenges to dislodge the insider, creating more instability than might occur with more systematic turnover of seats.

I have a sign on my office wall: "When reform becomes impossible, revolution becomes imperative."

Insiders lead reforms; outsiders spark revolutions. Incumbents, beware!


By Patricia McGuire  |  May 24, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Experience vs. hunger Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Well, Hyperiontc, if you listen to the ranting right, that's exactly what they expect him to do.

Funny, no? After all that post-Katrina roll-up-your-shirtsleeves, neighbors-helping-neighbors, get the fed out of our lives, pull yourself up by your bootstraps complaining, now conservatives want the feds to ride in on their white jetski and save the world. If they want unregulated capitalism then the unregulated corporation needs to take responsibility.

Posted by: arancia12 | May 27, 2010 12:20 AM
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I hear Obama is going to walk out in the Gulf and fix the oil spill. I assume he's going to swim down and fill the hole with our tax dollars.

Posted by: hyperiontc | May 26, 2010 2:49 PM
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