Elections

Meaningless Special Elections and the Press's Consequential Imperative

Failed congressional candidate Alex Sink, putting on her victory face. (Flickr/Village Square)

If it were up to me, I would eliminate special elections for the House of Representatives entirely. They make sense when it comes to the Senate, where every state has only two senators and terms run six years, meaning a vacancy can leave a state without significant representation for an extended period of time. But when a congressman dies or retires and there's another election to fill that critical 1/435th portion of the lower house's lawmakers in a few months, do we really need to mobilize the state's electoral resources, spend millions of dollars, and get a bunch of retirees to haul themselves down to the polls, only to do it all again before you know it? Hardly.

The other objectionable thing about special elections is that because they're almost always the only election happening at that moment, they not only get an inordinate amount of attention, the results also get absurdly over-interpreted. This is a symptom of what we might call the Consequential Imperative among the press (note: if you have a better moniker for this that could propel me to the front rank of contemporary neologism-coiners, hit me up on Twitter). The Consequential Imperative is the impulse, the desire, the need to assert that whatever a journalist happens to be reporting on is very, very important. So for instance, if your editor sent you down to Florida to do a week's worth of stories on the special election that just concluded there, you are extremely unlikely to write that this election was a contest between a couple of bozos, and means next to nothing for national politics (unless you're Dave Weigel, who for some reason seems to be almost the only reporter capable of saying such a thing). It's the same impulse that causes every gaffe, polling blip, and faux-controversy of every campaign to be presented as though it could dramatically alter the outcome of the election, despite all the experience telling us it won't.

Can the Koch Brothers Be a Political Asset for Democrats?

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

For while there, conservatives saw the hand of George Soros behind every conspiracy. It was always a little strange, not because there wasn't a certain truth underneath it—Soros has, in fact, given lots of money to liberal political causes (and he is an actual international Jewish financier, which certainly set a certain type of mind buzzing)—but because the idea of a billionaire using his money to shape America's politics isn't something conservatives object to. Quite the contrary; they think there ought to be a lot more of it.

Democrats, on the other hand, are not so friendly to the idea, which is why it's understandable that Charles and David Koch have taken on a larger role in the liberal imagination than Soros had in the conservative one (they've also spent a lot more money on politics than Soros ever did). But can Democrats convince voters who are not already liberals to be mad at the Kochs? That's how they're responding to the brothers' involvement in multiple Senate races this year, fighting back against the Koch's ads with with a public campaign against them.

While I don't think it's impossible that this could work, I'm skeptical. Greg Sargent explains the thinking:

Conservatives Have All the Best Talismans

Gaze upon me holding this fire stick, you easily mollified rubes.

Mitch McConnell is the GOP's shrewdest politician, but he's not exactly beloved by the party's base; he's got a Tea Party challenger in his re-election race this year, and he's regularly pilloried by hard-right conservatives as an establishment sellout. So he'll take whatever opportunity he can to do a little strategic outreach to that great grumbling mass that is, to paraphrase Howard Dean, the Republican wing of the Republican party. Fortunately, that yearly ritual of spittle-flecked rage, breathtaking extremism, and passionate theological debates about how many Reagans can dance on the head of a pin known as the Conservative Political Action Conference is going on right now. And when it was his turn to speak, Mitch made quite an entrance. Check this out:

Why Does the National Media Get Texas So Wrong?

AP Images/Eric Gay

Tuesday, as Texas primary voters headed to the polls, Politico published an article entitled “The Texas tea party’s best days may be behind it.” Below the headline were photographs of Governor Rick Perry, the state’s junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Steve Stockman, who had decided to wage a last minute, barely visible campaign again Texas’s senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn. The article focused on the Cornyn-Stockman race, and mentioned a congressional primary in which incumbent Pete Sessions faced a tea party challenge from Katrina Pierson.

Can Political Coverage Ever Get Better?

Reporters at an Obama rally in 2007. (Flickr/Steve Garfield)

As we begin inching our way toward the next presidential campaign, it may be far too early to begin the idiotic speculation with which coverage at this stage tends to be consumed (Can anyone beat Hillary? Will Ted Cruz be the Tea Party darling? Who'll win the Iowa straw poll? Dear god, who?). But it's never too early to ask whether anything can be done to improve the news coverage through which Americans see campaigns.

Primary Day Means Baby Steps for Texas Democrats

AP Images/Laura Skelding

Tuesday, as Texans head to the polls to select their parties’ nominees, Republicans will see a more exciting ballot than they’ve seen in years. When Rick Perry announced he wouldn’t run for a fourth term as governor of Texas, the ripple effect was immediate and dramatic: Republican officeholders who’d been stuck in place began looking for where to head. Attorney General Greg Abbott announced his expected bid for governor, prompting three other GOP candidates to announce their intention to run for the space Abbott leaves open. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who thought he’d be a U.S. Senator until Ted Cruz foiled his 2012 plans, found himself with three challengers—including the current state land commissioner and agriculture commissioner. In all, six different statewide positions in Texas are without incumbents this year, and 26 Republicans are vying for them. There will likely be runoffs in a number of tight races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and railroad commissioner.

The Scourge of the Businessman Politician

This highly successful businessman did not, in fact, become president.

Attentive readers will recall that among my many pet peeves (and being able to complain to a wide circle of people about your pet peeves is one of blogging's greatest fringe benefits) is the candidate who proclaims that you should vote for him because he's "a businessman, not a politician." As though the fact that there are a lot of shady car mechanics out there means that when you need a new timing belt, the best person for the job would be a florist or an astronomer, because they're not tainted by the car repair racket.

I've written at some length about why exactly success in business doesn't prepare you to be a good senator or governor, but the short version is that the two realms are extremely different. So it isn't too surprising that when businesspeople decide to run for office, most of the time they fail. They come in with a lot of money, flush it down the toilet on an overly expensive campaign, and quickly discover that there is a whole set of skills necessary for success that they don't possess. When you try to think of business leaders who got elected, then used their business acumen to do things differently and really made a major impact, it's hard to think of many names other than Michael Bloomberg. Here and there you'll find someone like former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen who did pretty well, but more common is candidates like Ross Perots, or Meg Whitman, or Linda McMahon, or Al Checci (there's a blast from the past for you political junkies). They think, "Sure I can do this better than those empty suits—I've made a billion dollars!" And then they lose.

Not every time, of course, but most of the time. Which is why Democrats should be pleased to hear this:

No Credit For Trying

A few years back, when George W. Bush was still president, I attended an event at the Pew Research Center, and at one point a discussion got going about the varying opinions of Democrats and Republicans about whether their respective parties stood up for their beliefs. At the time, far more Republicans than Democrats answered this question in the affirmative, and people had a variety of explanations for the result. Perhaps it was the fact that Republicans tend to be more respectful of authority, or perhaps the greater ideological and demographic diversity within the Democratic coalition had something to do with it. Feeling rather clever, I raised my hand, and said, "Maybe it's because they're both right." At the time, Republicans did indeed stand up for their beliefs, and Democrats didn't so much. After all, this was a period in which Republicans were getting pretty much everything they wanted from their president and their national party—tax cuts! Wars! Right-wing Supreme Court justices!—while Democrats were getting beaten about the head and shoulders, and responding by saying, "We're so sorry we hit your fists with our faces."

Political Consultants Have Never Been Richer, But Are They Endangered?

Richard Gere in Sidney Lumet's "Power" (1986), the best film ever made about a political consultant.

These are flush times for the political consulting industry, as Citizens United allowed billions of new dollars to pour into every political campaign, with spending seemingly going nowhere but up. In a lot of cases, you'll have campaigns spending millions, while outside groups on both sides come in and spend millions more. In the end, they often all fight to a draw, their efforts cancelling each other out, with the final result being pretty much what it would have been if there had been almost no spending at all. And who really wins? The consultants, of course. So how long can they keep this game going?

Lee Aitken of the Shorenstein Center has a new report urging journalists to pay more attention to where all this money is really going, and she highlights one remarkable figure. There was $6 billion spent on campaigns in 2012, but that's only part of the story:

Daily Meme: White Men with Money—The Story of the 2014 Midterms

  • Since 2014 is already two months in and the November elections only a short nine months away, we figured a brush-up on where all the money will be coming from is in order. As you might have guessed, this will mostly be a list of wealthy white men. Enjoy!

The Death of Dog-Whistle Politics

Flickr/Theron Trowbridge

If you go over to Politico right now, in the "Hot Topics" listed at the top of the page, along with Obamacare, immigration, and the Olympics, is the name Monica Lewinsky. Which might strike you as odd, given that Lewinsky has been rather quiet in the decade and a half since her affair with Bill Clinton became public and led to his impeachment. But aged though it may be, the Lewinsky scandal is back. This is a story about intramural Republican party competition, the GOP's inability to learn from its mistakes, and the death of dog-whistle politics. The problem for the Republicans is that they don't seem to have realized it's dead.

It's Lonely At the Top

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Last week, congressional Republicans got together at a Chesapeake Bay resort to contemplate their political fortunes. In one presentation, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a bit of shocking news to his colleagues: Most people are not, in fact, business owners. It would be a good idea, he suggested, if they could find a way to appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans who work for somebody else. Their aspirations don't necessarily include opening up their own store or coming up with an amazing new product, so the prospect of lowering the corporate tax rate or slashing environmental regulations may not make their pulses quicken with excitement. They're more concerned with the availability of jobs, the security of health care, and the affordability of education.

Daily Meme: It's Complicated—The Wendy Davis Story

It's not going to be all pink sneakers and inspiring grassroots action this week for the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign down in Texas. On SaturdayThe Dallas Morning News broke the story that key fac

The Penultimate Watergate Baby

georgemiller.house.gov

The 1974 midterm elections, held in the wake of Watergate, were a Democratic landslide. The party increased its strength in the House of Representatives by more than 50 new members, many from suburban districts that had previously elected Republicans.

Marijuana Legalization Will Be the Gay Marriage of the 2016 Presidential Election

A Democratic primary voter. (Flickr/Jonathan Piccolo)

In Politico, Reid Cherlin has an article about the "Pot Primary" in which he makes the rather odd assertion that while the next Democratic president is likely to put him/herself where President Obama is on the issue, "Less predictable is what would happen under a Republican—or how the issue might play out in a volatile Republican primary. No one expects marijuana to be the deciding issue, but then again, it might well be a helpful way for the contenders to highlight their differences."

Yeah, no. Apart from the possibility of some talk about not sentencing people to overly long prison terms for possession, there isn't going to be a debate amongst 2016 GOP candidates on this issue. The debate will all be on the Democratic side.

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