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The Tentacle


February 21, 2008

An All-Too-Infrequent Lesson

Tony Soltero

Last week two of Maryland's congressional officeholders saw their long-running House careers come to an unexpected halt: Republican Wayne Gilchrest, of District 1, mostly on the Eastern Shore, and Democrat Al Wynn, of District 4 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. They lost in primaries to challengers Andy Harris and Donna Edwards, respectively.

This is an unusual occurrence in American electoral politics. Most of the time incumbents are tough to defeat in general elections – and doubly tough to beat in primaries where party machines set up formidable firewalls to protect them.

Predictably, there has been much tooth-gnashing and hand-wringing by Washington elites over this development. How dare the voters speak out and exercise their right to vote out respected officeholder.

But leaving aside the supercilious tut-tutting voters are usually subjected to from egocentric Washington insiders whenever we dare to defy conventional “Inside-The-Beltway” wisdom, it's obvious to normal people that these are very healthy developments, and indicate that voters are paying attention and holding their representatives accountable. Nothing could be more constructive for democracy.

The two Maryland cases are not directly comparable, of course. Congressman Gilchrest was one of the last remaining moderate Republicans in Congress. He represented his moderate-conservative district the way he should have, with his opposition to the Iraq war (which is unpopular just about everywhere by now) and his reasonableness on environmental matters. His relatively moderate course ran afoul of the now-heavily-radicalized Republican Party. GOP activists were able to mount the effort to topple him. State Senator Andy Harris fits the current Republican profile far more snugly – intolerant, anti-science, and anti-environment.

By contrast, Al Wynn didn't just drift too far right for the Democratic Party. He acted and voted at odds with the interests of his entire district. He supported the estate tax repeal and the bankruptcy bill, two Republican-driven initiatives that hurt just about everybody outside of economic elites; and his early support of the misbegotten Iraq war raised hackles all across the Fourth District.

Donna Edwards challenged him in 2006 on these and other issues, and narrowly lost. This time around, though, she was able to organize and raise enough funds to roll to a landslide victory.

That said, there is a common thread to these two surprising results: our representatives have learned that they cannot afford to get too smugly comfortable with special-interest, big-money politics. With the rise of the online media and its growing effectiveness as an organizing-and-awareness-raising tool, it's become far easier to hold one’s representatives accountable for their votes and actions – at all levels.

A common lawmaker gambit is to support an unpopular, anti-public-interest piece of legislation in committee, and then turn around and oppose it on the floor, thus appearing to be "trying to stop" a bad law while secretly enabling it. This is a profoundly deceptive practice that lawmakers have been able to get away with because traditional media outlets just don't pay all that much attention to the inner workings in committees.

The Internet has helped change that, and constituents are now much more able to tell which of their representatives are sincere about their platforms, and which of them are just pretending to be. And voters are reacting accordingly.

These primary reversals also belie the beltway mantra that "experience" is some sort of holy oil that long-term representatives are magically anointed with, and that it would be folly to cast them aside and allow an "inexperienced" legislator to take his or her place.

Of course, it was highly experienced politicians who blundered us into Iraq, who ran up a record budget deficit, who deregulated the economy into its current mess and devalued the dollar, and who stood idly by as oil hit $100 a barrel.

So maybe it's time for a little less experience in Washington – a sentiment that has struck a chord among voters nationwide, and not just in congressional races.

We'll be finding out what the implications of these primaries are for the November election. Donna Edwards is far more mainstream than Andy Harris, so I wouldn't be surprised if Edwards wins her seat easily while Harris runs into some trouble against a Democratic challenger – not unlike Alex Mooney's close scrape against Candy Greenway in 2006 at the state level.

Wayne Gilchrest's moderation was the reason he kept getting re-elected; the First District voters might not be quite so open to Harris' radicalism. Meanwhile, Edwards' anti-corruption, pro-education, pro-equality platform is perfectly in sync with Fourth District voters.

But whatever happens, we've learned some key lessons in these primary results. Voters are paying more attention than ever. And experience is overrated.

And that's good for a democracy that needs all the help it can get.



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