Defeating incumbents, and the chore of unseating Lindsey Graham


One of the questions that citizens have probably been asking since they first began organizing governments is why is my government so messed up?  Some would say that a general sentiment against authority figures has been especially strong in the hearts and minds of Americans, dating back to the moment they decided to unshackle themselves from King George, and declare themselves free.  Some would say that this healthy sense of skepticism is so endemic to the American character that it has few rivals the world around.  An objective look through America’s last four decades of elections, however, suggests that most Americans are either more comfortable with the status quo, or that they believe “their guy” isn’t a part of the problem in Washington, because “he’s trying”.

Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty

Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty

Change is hard.  Most people don’t like change, and it’s very difficult to convince even a relatively small group of people to come together and accept change. Even in a small mom and pop store, change is hard. When you’re a large business, like a large ship, steering onto a different course is more difficult, and slower, and it can be fraught with complications that many foresee and fear.  When you’re the U.S. government, it can take generations to truly change anything, but any objective look through the past twenty years of elections shows that the American people don’t even want to touch the ship’s wheel.One would think, with our current debt approaching 17 trillion, and no end in sight on that progression, that most Americans would be seeking some sort of change in their federal government.  They’re not.  Four of the last five presidents that have been involved in building this debt, have been re-elected.  During this same time period, the Senators and Congressman have an average re-election rate of 90%.

Ask any citizen on the street what they think of the job performance of Congress, and you’ll usually find that around 85% of them disapprove (The July 17, 2013 to August 26, 2013 Real Clear Politics average Congressional approval rating is 15%) {1}.  Ask any citizen on the street what they think of the general direction of the country, and you’ll usually find that over 60% of them disapprove.  (Other than a  seven-year blip that occurred between 1997 to 2004, tracking polls have consistently shown that less than 50% of those Americans polled by Rasmussen have said that they’re generally dissatisfied with the direction of the country since 1992, and it’s been over 62% since 2010.) {2} Ask those same citizens if they voted for “their guy”, however, and you’ll likely find that 90% of them did. It’s what Politico.com‘s Charles Mahtesian describes as the “enduring phenomenon of voters hating Congress but liking their own member.”{3}

Even in a state like South Carolina—that PBS states can be generally described by using three words: “Conservative, conservative, and conservative,”{4}—it is nearly impossible for Republicans to unseat a sitting Republican Senator that many South Carolina conservatives believe has failed to live up to this “conservative, conservative, and conservative” standard.

As is usually the case when the press attempts to get to the heart of voter dissatisfaction, they usually find uninformed voters that can’t put a finger on their dissatisfaction, but know that they just don’t like their guy.  Most informed voters despise it when reporters frame voter dissatisfaction in this manner, but it may go a long way to defining the discrepancy between overall dissatisfaction numbers and the 90% re-election rate.

When the Washington Post interviewed some attendees of the state convention in South Carolina, they found a Dorian Bucholz that described her dissatisfaction thusly:

Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) does good things and then he’ll do some bad things.  He’ll be on the path to conservatism and then steer off that track.” {5}

To answer this unstated charge by The Post, that a number of South Carolina Republicans are unhappy with Graham, but they don’t know why, a South Carolina Tea Party group has drafted a resolution containing twenty-nine points that they believe lays out the case that Senator Graham has violated the South Carolina Republican Party’s conservative platform.

Items highlighted by these Tea Partiers include:

Graham’s support of providing weapons to “Al Quaeda / Muslim Brotherhood Revolutionaries in Syria,” how Graham “[s]upported amnesty but not border control,” how he supported “NSA spying on private American citizens,” “abridging the First Amendment for those who criticize the government,” “restrictions on the Second Amendment,” “Obama’s drone program against American citizens,” “subordinating American sovereignty to the United Nations,” “giving foreign aid to terrorist governments in the Middle East,” “granting members of the Muslim Brotherhood high level positions in the US government,” “giving taxpayer money to international organizations,” “giving taxpayer money for excessive foreign aid generally, not just to terrorist governments in the Middle East,” “restricting the First Amendment rights to criticize Islamic radicalism,” “Obama’s radical appointments to the Supreme Court,” “liberal proposal to nationalize banks,” “Obama’s energy taxes and Cap and Trade,” “bailouts for financial institutions (TARP),” and “bailouts for independent mortgage institutions (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).”

“Other points include how Graham opposed “principled application of free trade policies,” “making Bush tax cuts permanent,” “President Bush’s conservative nominee from South Carolina to the Court of Appeals,” and “medical malpractice tort reform.” The Tea Partiers also rip Graham for siding “with Democrats on government regulation to combat ‘climate change,’” having “[p]raised Hillary Clinton’s prospects for higher office,” having “[f]ailed to fight for President Bush’s conservative judicial nominees generally,” and for criticizing “the South Carolina GOP for defending the Republican platform.”

Matthew Boyle, of Breitbart.com, summarizes the Tea Party case:

This is arguably the most comprehensive document ever compiled about Lindsey Graham. After each one of the above points, the local Tea Party leaders include a short paragraph and links to more information in news articles or videos on YouTube of Graham making certain statements.”

Suggesting how difficult it can be to unseat such a well-known, well-liked member of the Senate that has served South Carolinians for twenty-two years, on state and federal levels, the Tea Party was very careful to qualify their desire to see another candidate unseat Graham by saying that this resolution is:

No reflection on (Graham’s) personal character, and that they harbor no ill-will for Graham’s supporters or Graham himself.”{6} 

As laid out in the preceding paragraphs, it’s been tough enough to unseat a generally anonymous incumbent in the last couple of decades, but when that incumbent can say that he has received a medal for Meritorious Service in the Armed Services, that he sits on four different committees, that he has achieved national prominence for South Carolina, that his tenure in office has been scandal free, that he is a generally perceived to be a good guy, and that the only substantive argument that can be made against him is that he isn’t conservative enough, it seems almost pointless to mount an election against him.

One would think that more Americans would want to vote more of “their guys” out of office just to re-establish our authority over them.  We don’t, the re-election rate is 90%.  One would think that Americans would try to keep the re-election rate closer to 50%, just to keep a healthy sense of fear in their representatives.  We don’t.  It’s a near consistent rate of 90%.  If we walked the streets, and asked our citizens if they approved of the theoretical idea of kicking 50% of these bums out every other year, we would surely receive 100% vocal support for our idea, but 90% of those vocal supporters would likely turn around and vote “their guy” back into office when it came time to vote.

Even when it can be demonstrably proven that “their guy” played a substantial role in the mediocre-to-poor performance of their government, as Graham has, most voters have so much emotion wrapped up in “their guy” that the challenger must be very careful not to insult the incumbent, for it is usually perceived as an insult of the judgment of those voters that put him there in the first place.  If, on the other hand, a challenger is not critical enough, voters may assume that there’s not a whole lot wrong with the incumbent.  This is especially the case in a primary battle, where a voter weighs the cons of “their guy” and decides that “their guy” may be flawed, but he’s a lot more battle tested at defeating Democrats.  This latter mindset was capitalized on by Graham at South Carolina’s state convention:

We’re going to end up in the same boat, whether you like it or not, because there’s holes in the other boat.”

So, Graham’s campaign may be centered on the inspirational theme that whether you like him or not, the other guy has flaws too, and judging by overall re-election rates, that might be all Graham needs to convince Republican primary voters that he’s “their guy” again.

One would think that when an incumbent campaigns on the platform that they’re going to fix all of our problems, that Americans would step back and say, “But aren’t you responsible for a majority of the problems that you promise to fix?”  They don’t.  They usually say, “He’s trying,” when they’re asked to describe their vote in exit polls.  One would think that, based on past performance, the one profession most Americans would try to avoid when electing their representatives would be lawyers.  They don’t.  Lawyers comprise about 43% of Congress.  One would think Americans would press harder for term-limits, so that no politician would live with the career mindset that prompts them to form allegiances with other Congressman in and out of their party, thereby losing track of their constituents’ concerns. They don’t.  Most campaigns to enact term-limits haven’t even seen the floor for a vote.  One would think that while all of these concerns are not going to be at the forefront of every voter’s mind when entering the booth, at least some of them would.  One would think that Americans would look at the blueprint for how this whole mess was created and say we need change, even if it’s large boat, slow turning change that takes generations, we need change.  They don’t.  They re-elect their representatives 90% of the time.

No facts or figures can better express this phenomenon than the 2010 midterm election.  That midterm election was said to have displayed almost unprecedented levels of dissatisfaction, it was said to be an aberration by some, and a bloodbath by others.  It involved an 85% re-election rate.  When such modifiers are used to describe an 85% re-election rate, you get an idea of what the South Carolina Tea Party, and anyone that attempts to defeat incumbents that haven’t achieved a third of the notoriety Lindsey Graham has, are up against.

{1} http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/congressional_job_approval-903.html
{2} http://www.gallup.com/poll/1669/general-mood-country.aspx
{3}http://www.politico.com/blogs/charlie-mahtesian/2012/12/reelection-rate-percent-151898.html
{4}http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/video/video-just-how-conservative-is-south-carolina/12915/
{5}http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/05/06/why-dont-south-carolina-conservatives-like-lindsey-graham/
{6}http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2013/09/01/South-Carolina-Tea-Partiers-draft-resolution-making-damning-29-point-case-to-replace-Lindsey-Graham

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