The Pitchfork Primaries: Will Washington Get the Message?

A handpicked successor is rejected, an old lion becomes roadkill, and a powerful Senator is forced into a runoff. The first contests of 2010 prove a rebellion is brewing. But is Washington listening?

  • Share
  • Read Later
L. to r.: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images; Ed Reinke / AP

L. to R.: Supporters of Senator Arlen Specter cheer as he arrives for a campaign stop; A supporter holds a drink as he waits for the appearance of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul

(2 of 3)

Specter's Last Hurrah
In such a climate, what does it mean to be an official, an authority? Sez who? On Specter's behalf, Governor Ed Rendell pulled out all the stops on the mammoth pipe organ of Pennsylvania politics — the union locals and Philly civil servants and AME pastors who normally drive the Democratic vote — but when he pressed the familiar keys, no one was listening. Upstart Democrat Joe Sestak, though hardly a natural campaigner, won strolling away. Bill Clinton failed to sway his fellow Arkansans for Lincoln; the Blanche-bashing bloggers of the left probably had a greater influence on the outcome by urging Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter to jump into the race. In Kentucky, a onetime Republican county chairman named Jack Richardson went rogue for Paul, then said at his victory party, "People don't understand the depth of the revolt that's taking place. A lot of people in the Beltway have been in a state of denial. This is going to wake them up a little bit."

But wake them up to what? Scorning authority and punishing the insiders only works when you're on the outside; it serves poorly as a governing strategy or a re-election theme. No one should know this better than Obama, who in 2008 surfed this selfsame wave to victory in the ultimate outsider's campaign. He declared a new era in American politics, but it turns out the old era was just getting revved up.

How does the ultimate authority figure, Mr. Finger on the Button, avoid being washed out by the same wave that swept him into power? Obama's future rests on his ditching the peacemaker rap and casting himself as a scourge. Already the White House is hard at work hammering its ploughshares into swords. Spokesman Robert Gibbs recently vowed to keep a "boot on the throat" of BP, an apt indication that the Administration is tuned to the mood of the moment. Obama has been battering health-insurance companies, big banks, radio talk jocks and recalcitrant Republicans. There will be more of that as long as the public remains angry — a little like the old joke about flogging the crew until morale improves.

He won't be the first President to play outsider from a floodlit spot at center stage. When Ronald Reagan geared up for a re-election campaign during a crushing recession, he cast himself as the lonely voice against the return of free-spending liberalism. His theme was "stay the course," but the course was hardly status quo. More than a decade later, after the 1994 elections brought Republicans to power in Congress for the first time in 40 years, Democrat Clinton positioned himself as a counterweight to both the right and the left — a sort of man without a party. He won a second term easily.

What Reagan and Clinton both had going for them was an improving economy, and Americans remain unconvinced that Obama will see one of those anytime soon. Pollster Peter Hart observes that the public mood is increasingly "set in concrete." Despite a growing GDP, three out of four voters say the country is still in a recession, and only 2% — yes, 2% — think the recession will be over by November. More than half the country believes we're on the wrong track as a nation, an assessment that has darkened over the past seven months. Recent Pew Research Center polling found congressional approval at its lowest level in at least a quarter century.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3