My views on politics are worth what you pay for them, but I would caution Republicans not to gloat too much from last night's Senate win in Massachusetts. More than a referendum on healthcare or Martha Coakley, - what we are likley seeing is the anti-incumbency/anti-establishment cycle re-starting -- albeit at a much faster speed.
Since 1992, presidential and congressional candidates have successfully campaigned against the party perceived to be in power and against the Beltway establishment. Of course, there are examples from earlier in 20th century U.S. political history (for example, the post-Watergate shake-up in Congress, Carter in '76 and Reagan in '80), but the cycle kicked into a higher gear and shorter frequency in '92. Every two years since then underdog candidates have tapped into voter insecurity and discontent with the "same old politics."
George W. Bush got a reprieve from this cycle only because of September 11th. President Obama might take some solace in the fact that, even aside from September 11th, it is possible for an incumbent President to ride out the cycle and win a second term - witness Clinton in 1996. But is a second term all that it is cracked up to be? The national acrimony and divisiveness in Clinton's second term should give Obama pause.
The cycle may spin even faster now with the widespread discontent with the financial crisis and the bailouts. We've already seen the fringes of both parties -- the Kuciniches and Pauls -- make common cause against the establishment center in the past year. Outside politicians can now campaign against both Wall Street and Big Government at the same time because the bailouts blurred the distinction between the two like never before.
Regardless of who is on top at any given point in this cycle, there are some real dangers that this repetitive backlash is corroding faith in political institutions and the ability to govern. There may be a silver lining if you are sceptical of increases in governmental power -- George W. Bush's national security policies or Clinton and Obama's health care.
But unless you believe everything is hunky dory in America right now, narrowing the political window for governance to two years -- maybe we are down to one year now -- doesn't bode well for statesmen and women of any stripe. Nor does adding fuel to populist fires.
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