It’s been a rough week for incumbents. First came the ouster of Bob Bennett, who failed to even make it onto Utah’s Republican primary ballot after 17-plus years in the Senate. Then Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia went down in Tuesday’s Democratic primary after a 27-year career in the House. The AP chalked both defeats up to the country’s “anti-establishment mood.”Time called Mollohan “anti-incumbency’s first real casualty.”Politico speculated about which incumbents could be next.
The victors are pushing the anti-Washington narrative, too. Opponents of Bennett and Mollohan painted the incumbents’ experience as a liability. “I think he’s been in Washington too long,” said Tim Bridgewater, the Utah businessman who defeated Bennett and has never held public office. Meanwhile, the West Virginia state senator who defeated Mollohan, Mike Oliverio, called fellow Democrat Mollohan a “corrupt” Washington insider and, for good measure, took shots at the party leadership. “Hopefully, there will be a better candidate [for Speaker] than Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
But for all the pitchfork-sharpening, what happens when anti-establishment candidates arrive in Washington? One of two things, usually: Either they quickly adapt to the establishment, or they serve for one term.
The most recent adapter has been Scott Brown. In January, Brown campaigned as a strong conservative, promising to be the 41st vote against health care reform. He never said he would block every piece of the Obama agenda. But he certainly let voters believe it. Democrats played along. (They also benefited from exaggerating his reactionary tendencies.) Chuck Schumer labeled Brown “far-right.” The Boston Globe said he was in sync with the national Republican Party—that is, more conservative than Massachusetts Republicans. Tea Partiers, meanwhile, claimed him as their own.
Since then, Brown has let them down. He voted for Obama’s jobs bill, despite pledging to rein in spending. He joined Democrats in breaking a Republican filibuster of an unemployment benefits package. Obama has also pegged Brown as a possible ally in the upcoming fight over immigration reform.
No surprises there. For one thing, despite all his anti-Obama rhetoric, Brown has always been a moderate. His voting record in the state senate suggested he was liberal even for a Massachusetts Republican, according to a study conducted at the time by the University of Chicago’s Boris Shor. He only busted out the government-takeover rhetoric for the campaign.
Brown isn’t alone. Everyone promises to change Washington. And everyone compromises when they get there. It’s just politics. “Most outsider candidacies are wildly contradictory,”says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. “If you say you’re going to make the Senate work and all you do is support filibusters and prevent action, you’re not being faithful to what you said you were going to do.”
Then there’s what Shor calls the “basic re-election imperative.” “Whatever you want to accomplish,” he says, “you can’t do it in a single term.” Re-election itself requires becoming part of the Washington establishment—candidates have to raise money for fellow party members in hopes that they’ll return the favor, and they have to keep their heads down so as not to tick off the leadership. “Outsider” candidates often say they’ll serve only one term, as Bob Bennett did in 1992. But those who have a good shot at re-election almost always take it, as Bob Bennett did in 1998 and 2004.
For any congressional candidate to believe that he or she can “shake up” Washington upon arrival may be unrealistic. But it’s not necessarily disingenuous. They may actually believe it. Or they may simply not understand how Washington works. (They’re outsiders, after all.) There’s little one person can do to derail the legislative train that’s been chugging along for 250 years. First-term members of Congress are also the least equipped people to do it. They don’t have seniority on their committees, they don’t wield personal influence, and they don’t have chits with the leadership.
Incumbents, on the other hand, have seniority, respect, and the connections necessary to bring home the loot—a skill set known in election years as “experience.” But that often means they’ve been around long enough to see their district’s ideology shift beneath them.
Sure, some anti-establishment types make a career out of being outsiders. But they rarely have much clout within the establishment itself. Take Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He’s known for sticking with his ideals, such as including a public option in health care reform. Same with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who brought a single-payer bill to the Senate floor in December even though he knew it stood no chance. They may force their party to the left now and then. But more often they shout into the void—and ultimately compromise, as both Kucinich and Sanders did on health care reform.
It’s also true that outsider candidates do often vote differently from their predecessors. But that not’s necessarily because they’re outsiders—it’s because they have different views from their predecessors (presumably, that’s part of the reason they defeated them). Oliverio, for example, would probably have voted against health care reform. Bridgewater would probably have voted against TARP. But neither vote would have had much to do with how long they had spent in Washington.
There’s always a tension between the Washington establishment and the district back home. But it’s a flexible one. When politicians “make the system work” for their district by bringing home goodies, constituents tend to give them some ideological leeway. Sometimes, though, the ideology gap becomes too great, the rubber band snaps, and suddenly Bob Bennett is looking for a job. His “outsider” replacement might better reflect his district’s ideology. But by the time he’s in a position to change the way Washington works, he will be, by definition, the establishment.