I come before you today to defend Mitch McConnell. Because although McConnell can spin with the best of them, late last week some kind of misfire deep within his brain caused him to experience a moment of candor and inadvertently shine a light on the absurdity of campaigns—not just what candidates tell us, but what we expect of them.
The immediate topic was jobs, and whether McConnell would bring them to one particular region of Kentucky. "Economic development is a Frankfort issue," he said, citing the state capital. "That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet."
Horrors! Naturally, his opponent jumped all over him for it. As Steve Benen reminds us, something similar happened in 2010 to Sharron Angle, the nutball then running for U.S. Senate in Nevada, who once said, "People ask me, 'What are you gonna do to develop jobs in your state?' Well that's not my job as a U.S. senator, to bring industry to this state." Angle was wrong about a lot of things, but she was basically right about that.
And so is McConnell. There's a limited amount that even a powerful U.S. senator can do to bring jobs to his home state, and he certainly isn't going to transform its economy. Yet that's exactly what we expect candidates to say they'll do: "Elect me, and we'll get Podunk County's economy back on track!" The candidates certainly know it's a load of bull, but I'm not sure the voters do.
And it's harder now than ever. At the urging of Republicans, Congress has done away with earmarks, the old practice of individual members requesting and receiving spending projects in their districts. The budgetary effect of earmarks was always exaggerated (they didn't actually appropriate new money, they just directed money that had already been appropriated) but, even so, it sounded to many like a good idea at the time, since earmarks always had the whiff of legal corruption about them, with the member buying his constituents' favor with public funds, and the potential for useless projects being sprinkled throughout the land simply because some members of Congress sat on the right committees. But in the time since, many have argued that the elimination of earmarks removed a crucial tool that had long been used to lubricate the gears of government. A road here and a hospital expansion there—these often served as a relatively low-cost way to corral votes and get budgets passed, which hasn't happened much in recent years. And the occasional Bridge to Nowhere notwithstanding, lots of earmarked projects are actually good uses of federal money, funding necessary things like infrastructure.
But even though earmarks are gone, voters are still regularly promised a federally-secured economic boom in their district or state should they elect the right person, even if it may be described in somewhat less specific terms than it once was (less "I'll get us funding for that school" and more "I'll get our economy going"). A thriving economy is just one of the ridiculous things we expect every candidate for federal office to promise us.
Right now every Tea Party challenger is telling the people he wants to be his constituents that what they need is "someone who'll stand up to Barack Obama!" I can just see it now:
"Mr. President, I have some grave news."
"Yes, Dennis, what is it?"
"Well sir, newly elected Rep. Troy Hinkleberry from East Burp, Alabama, says he won't stand for any more of your socialism!"
"I guess the game is up. We knew this day would come. Time to break out the Obamacare dismantling plan."
It goes on. Every challenger says he or she will "change the way they do things in Washington," or "shake up the system," and none of them ever do. Sometimes it's because they don't really have much of an intention to do so, but usually it's because one member of the Senate or the House (especially the House) has precisely zero ability to transform the institution they're joining, much less the entire federal government. With some careful strategizing, freshman members can themselves and gain a higher public profile than some of their colleagues (see Paul, Rand), and they can write useful legislation. They might even be able to call attention to an issue others are ignoring. But they aren't going to change Washington.
One person who isn't fooled about all this is Henry Waxman, the California congressman who spent the last 40 years carefully, methodically, ploddingly trying to pass legislation. One of the last of the "Watergate babies" who elected in 1974 in the wake of the scandal, Waxman is retiring this year, and the New York Times Magazine has a look at the huge number of people who are vying to replace him, including, most colorfully, the New Age self-help author Marianne Williamson:
When he speaks of those who have lined up to succeed him, Waxman makes the requisite mention of "some good, qualified candidates," but he has no plans to endorse anyone before the primary election on June 3. And he is not sure he will endorse anyone after the primary either. He is amused by the naïveté of prospective members who "talk like they can just wave a magic wand" and make the problems of Washington go away. He reserves particular ridicule for Williamson and her claim that she wants to "just get people talking" in order to "heal" our politics. "She says she is going to come in here and 'change the dialogue,' " Waxman said, assuming a mocking tone. "She says, 'We're going to talk about helping kids and protecting the food supply' and other things. It's as if nobody has ever thought of this before."
My favorite part of the article, written by Mark Leibovich, comes a bit later:
I suggested to him that, had he not decided to retire, it might be kind of fun to run against the likes of Williamson. 'Yes, that's all I need,' Waxman said, then muttered something under his breath in Yiddish.
Williamson could certainly win in a crowded field, but one thing I'm sure of is that the winner of this California House seat will not be healing Washington singlehandedly, in its soul or anywhere else. I realize that it isn't particularly inspiring for a candidate to say, "If you elect me, I'll do my best, but I'm probably not going to accomplish much, at least in the short term." But surely there's some ground that can be occupied between that pessimism and the absurd over-promising that most candidates offer.