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The Carletonian

Accepting casualties

<ampaign season comes into full swing with state primaries and conventions happening around the country, a nationwide attitude (the wrongness of which I wrote about a few weeks ago) is becoming clear, the anti-establishment mindset. Throughout the nation, distrust of government is enormously high, and voters and delegates are converting those feelings into support for new outsider candidates. As a result, long time members of congress like Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah and Democratic Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia have already lost a party convention and primary respectively, and there’s ample evidence the anti-insider trend will continue into the general election. Now, as I wrote earlier, I do not think these attitudes are productive and solve many problems. Washington’s issues are systemic and purely changing the personnel won’t solve much.

Regardless, the attitude is there, and does not seem like it will change until conditions in the country improve. For that reason, I think the Obama Administration needs to be very careful and strategic about for which challenged incumbent Democrats it will show outpourings of support. Of course, I cannot imagine being in the position of having a dear friend in congress who is in danger of losing his or her job. But one of the rules of leadership is this: casualties are likely and need to be expected. President Obama has shown he understands this in the way some of his administration members have left, namely Greg Craig and Van Jones, but the way he supports members of the legislative branch must reflect this concept as well.

The reason is this: if Obama really wants to be a transformative figure for change, he must remember that change takes time and that he needs to be consistent with that change. That means when the electorate overwhelmingly is anti-incumbent, he should restrain his support and perhaps not try to save Democrats with his presence in their campaigns. If voters, particularly independents, see Obama as someone less interested in the parties in power and more interested in governing and finding solutions, he would gain a lot of credibility.

One name that comes to mind as I think about Obama poorly spending his political capital is the way he has tried to save Senator Arlen Specter in his Democratic primary race in Pennsylvania. Now, Specter was an enormous help for Obama’s agenda when he supported the stimulus bill as a Republican and then acted as a reliable liberal vote when he switched parties. And it is reasonable to expect Specter to be a good Democratic soldier if he won his bid for re-election. This no doubt places significant pressures on White House officials who feel real loyalty towards him.

Voters’ concerns about him, however, are legitimate. The fact that his decision to become a Democrat was almost purely political and intended to save his hide from a more conservative Republican primary challenger reeks of the selfish, “desperate to stay in power,” attitude that voters despise about Washington. Protecting a thoughtful moderate like Blanche Lincoln might be one thing, but for Obama to put his neck out for Specter gives ammunition to opponents and independents reason to doubt the sincerity and honesty of Obama’s nonpartisan message.

Remember, if there is one thing we know about the upcoming election, it is that Democrats will lose seats, period; Obama is going to have to govern and pass bills with a weaker and less supportive legislature. Succeeding in that environment will in many ways be his real governing test. If Obama is going to be the transformative figure he dreams of being, he needs to be above it all and remain consistently not interested in which ideas come from which parties, but in which ideas are good. In addition, except for a few standout congressmen and women, over time it is the President that governed during a transformative period who is remembered. Likewise, it is Obama—his successes and failures—that people will associate with the Democratic Party, with the liberal agenda, in the long run. If he is successful, Democrats over the long run will be successful, and that is what he should be concerned about.

 -David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist

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