Nationalizing Politics

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 15, 2006

BALTIMORE -- This year's elections may turn the Tip O'Neill adage "All politics is local" not so much upside down as sideways: In 2006 all local politics is national, and all national politics is individual.

The United States is witnessing a centralization and nationalization of politics unprecedented in our history. This trend is rooted in the rise of the political consulting industry, vast changes in the technology of campaigning, and the intense competition between the two major parties for control of Congress.

There is, as well, the concentration of political money at the national level as Washington-based interest groups, associations and lobbyists not only raise large amounts in political contributions within the capital but also mobilize campaign money from their allies around the country.

The blogosphere has created central repositories of political information -- including news of very local developments that would otherwise go unnoticed on the national level -- that can speed the flow of intelligence to activists across the nation. And the recruitment of candidates is ever more the job of national party committees, not local officials or organizations.

The result is that the conventional debate about whether congressional elections are primarily local or national in character is both irrelevant and misleading. Even apparently local developments are often orchestrated from afar, and even personal attacks on individual candidates are largely the work of a cadre of Washington-based researchers.

Developments over the past week, including those in Tuesday's primaries, show how important national party machines are to the fate of individual candidates.

The most ironic national intervention was in Rhode Island, where Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate, who has often voted against President Bush, was powered to renomination over conservative Stephen Laffey by the voter identification and message apparatus created by Bush; his top political aide, Karl Rove; and pollster Matthew Dowd.

Here was the president's own political operation trying to identify and bring anti-Bush voters to the polls to renominate an anti-Bush senator who is his party's only hope for holding a Senate seat in a very anti-Bush state. Ideology and loyalty are far less important than control over Washington's levers of power. Chafee, who prides himself on independence, was in fact hugely dependent on a national party he often opposes.

Days before Chafee won his primary, The Post's Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee, using research by its own operatives, plans to run tough, negative ads against Democratic challengers this fall on "personal issues and local controversies."

These ads will be classic instances of seemingly individual and local factors invoked as part of a national, centrally directed effort. Such attack ads are likely to be used most in districts in the Northeast and Midwest where Republican candidates will be trying not to talk much about national Republican issues.

Even turning away from your party can be a national partisan strategy, and Republicans are hoping to hold Congress by electing a herd of "independent fighters." At least five Republican candidates describe themselves with that phrase. New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. calls himself an "independent fighter," and so do Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Reps. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Vito Fossella of New York.

In Maryland, Republicans hope to use local conflicts in the Democratic Party along racial lines to help Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, whose compelling personal story led the national party to recruit him, against Rep. Ben Cardin, the winner of this week's Democratic U.S. Senate primary.

Cardin defeated former representative Kweisi Mfume, who, like Steele, is black. Mark Clack, Mfume's campaign manager, said here that Steele could "play off" African American resentment "against the Maryland Democratic establishment" over the lack of black representation at the top of the Democratic ticket.

Clack said that for Cardin to win, "the frustration level in the African American community will have to be doused." But he thinks Cardin will succeed, because African American voters have not forgotten the Republicans' use of racial "wedge issues" in past elections and because Steele's need to mobilize the GOP's conservative base will run counter to his effort to appeal to the black community. The Washington Republicans, on the other hand, hope Steele can be a success story in their well-coordinated national effort to blur national issues.

So in 2006 the local is not really local, everything is about controlling Washington, and "independence" is a product being franchised by a national party apparatus.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company