This year, not one, but two, incumbent senators up for re-election have been dogged by the "issue" of the precise location where they rest their heads at the end of a weary day of lawmaking. First it was Republican Pat Roberts, who, we learned in February, lists the home of some friends as his official residence in Kansas; apparently he crashes there when he's in the state. And now it's Democrat Mary Landrieu, whose heretofore unimpeachable Louisiana roots (her father Moon was the mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s, and her brother Mitch holds that office today) are now being questioned. It seems that although Landrieu owns a home in Washington, she's registered to vote in the New Orleans house she grew up in, where her parents still reside (even though it's technically owned by Mary and her eight siblings, all of whose names begin with "M"—make of that what you will).
The opposition researchers have certainly been earning their keep. But should the rest of us care? The easy answer is, of course not; this is the kind of inane faux-controversy that consumes campaigns, where one side pretends to take umbrage at something with no importance, then the press pretends it means something because a candidate is "on the defensive." But as far as phony issues go, this one is actually revealing—not because of anything it says about the senators, but because of what it says about the often absurd and contradictory expectations we have of our representatives. We berate them for being lazy and not getting enough done, but at the same time, we get mad if they spend too much time in the place where they're supposed to be working.
At the heart of it is the idea that Washington is a horrid, despicable place, full of corruptions large and small. We may send our politicians there, but it's sort of in the spirit of Frodo heading to Mordor: we're glad you went, there being a job to do and all, but if you start to get comfortable we assume you've joined up with Sauron's army. Even if you've been there for eighteen years, as Landrieu has, you'd better not buy a house to live in, because that'll show you've gone native. In other words: We sent you there, and we keep sending you back, but you'd better not like it. So here's an ad from the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, a Washington-area interest group staffed by Washington operatives, saying: "Tell Mary Landrieu: Enough Washington!"
I guess we're supposed to expect that the people we elect to Congress should arrive in Washington, shake their fist at the Capitol building without deigning to contaminate themselves by setting foot inside, then head straight back to the airport to return home, where all true virtue and common sense reside.
And that's the flip side of the "gone Washington" attack: that the home state or district, in whichever corner of this great nation it happens to be, is the most spectacular, most special, most heavenly place to be found on this earth. The people there are the most hard-working, kindest, and wisest you'll meet anywhere. The vistas are more pleasing to the eye, the food more glorious upon the tongue, the very air the locals breathe a sweet elixir of goodness and joy. If you want to leave even for a minute, you must be some kind of monster.
But here's the thing: As long as we're going to have a republic in which the seats in our legislature are apportioned geographically, and until we have a full telepresence-based system where all members of Congress appear in the Capitol only in holographic form, our lawmakers are going to have to leave the places they represent and go to Washington in order to do their jobs. And to do those jobs well, it isn't enough simply to hold on to your homespun values and be guided by the warm light of the people's faith in you. It also requires things like understanding how laws work, learning about government's strengths and weaknesses, and grasping the interplay of the various interests that inhabit Washington so you can build coalitions to accomplish important goals.
That doesn't mean it's impossible to grow "out of touch" with the place you hail from and stop knowing or caring enough about the folks back home, because it certainly is. But the things that make for an effective legislator are often invisible to the folks back home, at least until the end of a lengthy process that produces important legislation for which you can take deserved credit (or undeserved credit, something of which members have been know to avail themselves). If you go on TV and proclaim your hatred of Washington and your love of "[insert your home state here] values," they might see that and conclude that you're still one of them. But actually doing the things that could improve their lives? That'll usually go unnoticed.
As it happens, Mary Landrieu is trying to convince Louisiana voters that her actual work in the Senate could be of some benefit to them, mostly because she's chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and will thus keep that sweet crude flowing (and for some reason, her ads tend to involve guys walking determinedly toward the camera—see here or here). Her argument is that political power is actually something that can be wielded in Washington to beneficial ends for her home state.
In order to do that, of course, you have to actually be there, amidst the lawyers and lobbyists and moral rot of the nation's capital. But somebody's got to do it.
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