Voters' anger at Washington may overpower any fixes

The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza give their analysis of the primary elections that sent incumbents packing and has rattled the establishment.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 1:30 PM

Voters sent a clear message on Tuesday: They don't like the way Washington works. But they sent a mixed message on what would make it work better, which adds up to a virtual guarantee that it might be a long time before Washington actually does work better.

Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul sounded a lot alike when they addressed their supporters after upending establishment-backed candidates in their Senate primaries. Both attributed their victories to grass-roots dissatisfaction with Washington, and on that they were correct.

Paul was fueled by the tea party movement, which has become the energizing force inside the Republican Party. Sestak owes his success against five-term incumbent and party switcher Arlen Specter to grass-roots energy on the left, which helped give him a boost, particularly in the earliest stages of his candidacy.

Their victories speak to the broadest trend shaping the political climate, which is voter anger. Voters have lost faith in their politicians, whom they see as a privileged class that has lost touch with the concerns of Main Street. But in today's ideologically polarized environment, left and right are joined only by their disgust with the status quo. What the supporters of Paul and supporters of Sestak want couldn't be farther apart.

Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, offered a post-primary analysis that underscored the problem. He notes the focus on the apparent anti-incumbent mood that has now toppled two sitting senators (Specter and Utah's Robert Bennett) and a sitting House member (West Virginia's Alan Mollohan), and threatens another sitting senator (Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln).

But he makes a point that is often overlooked in the shorthand interpretations we in the media often use. "With the exception of Mollohan, the nomination defeats (or major troubles at this point for Lincoln), are politicians who were punished for their votes and efforts that strayed from the party line," he wrote.

Mollohan lost a week ago in part because of ethical baggage he had carried for some time. That finally caught up with him. But Bennett, who was defeated at a party convention on May 8, was targeted because he had supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Specter was targeted because rank-and-file Democrats did not trust him. After a long career in which he bedeviled the leaders of both parties with his independence, he came to look like a politician who cared more about his career than the either the concerns of ordinary voters or the agenda of his new party.

Lincoln drew the ire of unions and progressives for giving up on the public option in the health-care debate -- a position that put her in league with President Obama and perhaps many of her constituents but one that rankled the base of the Democratic Party. In Arizona, John McCain faces a primary challenge later in the summer because of questions about whether he is sufficiently conservative.

Bolger goes on to write, "This post is not to bemoan the choice of BOTH parties' primary electorate to choose confrontation over compromise. It's simply analyzing the results from a different angle. It's not just anti-incumbency coursing through the veins of the primary electorates, but it is supercharged by a distrust of the other side. Like unicorns and rainbows, bipartisanship is going to be rarely spotted over the next few years."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman has a related analysis in his most recent column. "Voters are also alert to the stench of partisanship -- the belief that politicians not only put big interests ahead of them, but also put party above all," he wrote. "The constant wrangling for advantage does not inspire affection. When Pew [Research Center] asked voters to describe Congress in one word, 'dysfunctional' topped the list."

Those views are not being reflected in primary results. The paths desired by the activists whose voices are being heard loudest in the primaries are poles apart. The tea party movement's call for smaller government, if implemented in the way Rand Paul interprets it, would be a drastic jolt. Those on the other side, the grass-roots progressives who first provided fuel to Obama's presidential campaign, would, if anything, push the president further to the left. There is not much appetite for compromise at this point.

In his analysis, Bolger lumped Florida Gov. Charlie Crist into the category of defeated incumbents, noting that he effectively lost his party's nomination for Senate because he strayed from party orthodoxy. Crist quit his race for the Republican nomination after seeing his support plummet in the face of a conservative challenge by former Florida speaker Marco Rubio.

Crist is now running for the Senate as an independent. That means that in Florida this fall, voters might get to choose between a Republican nominee who advocates strong opposition to the Obama agenda and an independent who might call for greater cooperation between the parties.

But that is likely to be the exception. The struggles of the past year have put the two parties on a collision course in November and the primaries are reinforcing that direction. Railing at Washington will be a popular message this fall, from Republicans and Democrats. Finding ways to make Washington work will be lost in the clamor.

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