Primary Tuesday: Sending the Bums the Right Message

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From left: Mark Theiler / EPA / Corbis; Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Senators Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln

Nothing has the potential to cleanse the body politic as fully as the sacking of incumbents and Establishment favorites. Last weekend's inside-game elimination of Utah's longtime Republican Senator Robert Bennett at a state party convention, which denied him the chance to run in the GOP primary, could well be followed on Tuesday with some major victories for the throw-the-bums-out crowd. Of particular potency are the possible loss of Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary, the now likely victory of the libertarian prince Rand Paul in Kentucky's Republican Senate contest over the candidate favored by top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, and the potential demise of Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln at the hands of Bill Halter in Arkansas.

When the electoral soap operas are this darn interesting to activists and the media, it is especially easy to forget that the point of politics is not campaigns as sport but to determine who governs. Anger is the word of the year in America in both politics and government — anger at President Obama, Congress, incumbents, Wall Street and, most of all, Washington. Incumbents and Establishment candidates generally have reacted to the threat of this passion by doing combinations of three things: co-opting the rhetoric of rage, adopting populist positions on the hot-button issues of the day and deploying (without irony or hesitation) old-fashioned negative political attacks to try to destroy their opponents.

The phoniness and business-as-usual nature of these defensive moves, almost all shaped by polls, focus groups and whispering consultants, doesn't mean they won't work. But even if there is a political tidal wave that costs Democrats control of the House and/or the Senate, the vast majority of incumbents of both parties are going to be re-elected. So the real question remains: How do politicians in office now, and after the election, respond to this overarching anger and address the will of the people?

It would be great — if not overly idealistic in rhetoric or reality — to see politicians actually try to figure out why so many Americans are unhappy and look for ways to address their real concerns. This won't be easy, of course, because the animating rationale of the anger is both diffuse and contradictory. Much of it is driven by activists at the extremes of both parties who have harnessed the bilious national mood to power their own goals. Left-wing activists want to elect Democrats who are more liberal and will stand up to conservatives, while activists on the right demand pure conservatives who will thwart and turn back the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.

These twin, noisy minorities have dominated the political narrative in the primaries so far, and will continue to strike fear into the hearts of the powers that be all the way through September's final round of primaries and the midterm elections in November. The left and right are aggressively seeking warriors who will represent them in battle against the other side, with weapons drawn and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Meanwhile, many centrists are up in arms too, frustrated with the endless bickering from the capital and anxious for civilized solutions.

It is Specter's contest that in many ways has the most resonance. While the 79-year-old's decades of service are admirable, his oblivious projection of entitlement and his manifest determination to hold on to his job at almost any cost have made him the embodiment of the cynical career politician. The agenda and credentials of his opponent, Congressman Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral, are virtually immaterial; the race is all about Specter, who was a Republican Senator from his Democratic-leaning state for 28 years until last April, when he switched stripes because, as he notoriously declared with a grin on his face, "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected."

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