The Liberal Blogosphere Vs. Matt Bai: Ezra Klein Collecting Social Security Edition

Matt Bai at NYT:

Americans have been cursing their incumbents — and periodically rising up to eject them from office — since angry Bostonians took a bucket of tar and some feathers to their customs commissioner in 1774. Such uprisings have become an almost cyclical occurrence in Washington, and after this week’s primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, 2010 seems destined to be one of those years.

Word has reached Washington that an anti-incumbent tsunami is roaring its way, and frightened politicians are already trying, sometimes comically, to put some distance between themselves and the tide. “My gosh, these people in Washington are running the country right into the ground,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, lamented this week, despite having lived and worked there for the last 34 years.

But to suggest that this week’s primaries are just part of the latest revolt against incumbency, brought on by pervasive economic angst, is to miss some deeper trends in the electorate that are more consequential — trends that have brought us to an unprecedented disconnect between, on one side, the traditional shapers of our politics in Washington and, on the other, the voters who actually make the choices.

The old laws of politics have been losing their relevance as attitudes and technology evolve, creating a kind of endemic instability that probably is not going away just because housing prices rebound. Nor is that instability any longer driven only by ideological mini-movements like MoveOn.org or the tea parties, as some commentators suggest. Voter insurrection has gone as mainstream as Miley Cyrus, and to the extent that the parties in Washington take comfort in the false notion that all this chaos is fleeting, they will fail to internalize the more enduring lessons of Tuesday’s elections.

The first is that this age-old idea of “clearing the field” for a preferred candidate, so as to avoid divisive primaries, is now, much like the old party clubhouse, a historical relic. This should have been clear to everyone after 2008, when Barack Obama, shunned by most of his party’s major contributors and its Washington establishment, simply shrugged off endorsements and raised more than half a billion dollars from his own constituencies.

Now the Obama effect has trickled down to the likes of Rand Paul, who beat his party’s preferred Senate candidate in Kentucky, and Joe Sestak, who toppled the new-and-improved Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. (It makes you wonder whether Mr. Obama and his aides really thought they could “clear the field” for Mr. Specter, as they suggested, or whether they knew from their own experience how wishful that was and were just bent on to luring him across the aisle.)

[…]

What all this probably means is that we are living in the era of the upstart. Thirty years ago, when you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office, taking it to the establishment was a quixotic venture undertaken on the national level, where a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Buchanan could at least make a powerful statement along the road to obliteration. (Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”)

Those days are gone. The intraparty rebellions now will be increasingly local, sufficiently financed and built around credible candidates — the kind of campaigns that made Barack Obama president and that may yet give us Senator Paul or Senator Sestak. My gosh, these people in Washington are in for it now.

Jonathan Bernstein:

It seems that Bai has heard of Jimmy Carter.  That’s good!  Now, my assignment for Matt Bai: go back and read about Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign.  And then try to argue that Barack Obama, backed by Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy (and established party insiders such as David Axelrod and David Plouffe) was anything like Carter in ’76.  What you’re going to find is that “thirty years ago” was the era of the upstart, not now.  Citing Jimmy Carter to make a point that thirty years ago “you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office” is like citing Spiro Agnew to make the point that at forty years ago, only seriously accomplished politicians with a deserved reputation for personal integrity were considered for the Vice Presidency.

Might as well do the last paragraph…

Those days are gone. The intraparty rebellions now will be increasingly local, sufficiently financed and built around credible candidates — the kind of campaigns that made Barack Obama president and that may yet give us Senator Paul or Senator Sestak. My gosh, these people in Washington are in for it now.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing “increasingly local” at all about Rand Paul or Joe Sestak.  I really don’t want to read much into a couple of results, but if they symbolize anything, it’s national influence on state and local elections.  Paul is all about national Republicans — Palin and DeMint and his father — reaching in and influencing a state primary.

There is something different about contemporary parties than older parties, which is that national element.  If I had to generalize — and as with all generalizations, there are numerous exceptions — what I’d say is this.  In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, local parties were able to control their nominations.  Over the course of the twentieth century, and probably bottoming out sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, those parties lost control of nominations to candidates, who formed their own personal organizations…at the extremes, parties were relatively empty labels that independent candidates battled over.  Over the last thirty or forty years, however, parties have evolved, developing strong national components that never existed in previous strong-party eras, and once again parties generally control their nominations.  I certainly don’t see anything in any of the cases this year (not just Sestak and Paul, but also Rubio, and the NY-23 special, and others) that seem to be about parties losing control over their own nominations, as opposed to party groups battling over those nominations.

Of course, no matter how strong parties get, as long as they are permeable and not strictly hierarchical they will still feature internal clashes, which will often play out in nomination fights.  To the extent that independent candidates are also strong, they will sometimes clash with party choices.  Really, I think that’s the best way of looking at Arlen Specter.  He obviously wasn’t a creature of the Democratic Party establishment; he was, in many ways, a great example of the strong, independent candidates of an earlier era in American politics.  The political system can still produce such creatures, but we’re in a more partisan era now, and if it symbolizes anything, the demise of Arlen Specter is probably best seen as a sign of the strength of the new parties.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Institutions like the New York Times provide enormous value in their reporting. But the tossed-off analysis has always been a soft spot, and the blogs have really helped expose that.

Kevin Drum:

Speaking of volatility, how about Matt Bai? He seems to swing between genuinely keen insights and the laziest of conventional wisdom on almost a weekly basis. Today, unfortunately, is the latter: Tuesday’s election results, says Bai, demonstrate an anti-incumbent wave, a new era of divisive primaries, the loss of party power, and the end of issues-based politics. I’m pretty sure I’ve been hearing about all four of those things since at least the mid-70s, but this in particular was gobsmacking:

What all this probably means is that we are living in the era of the upstart. Thirty years ago, when you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office, taking it to the establishment was a quixotic venture undertaken on the national level, where a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Buchanan could at least make a powerful statement along the road to obliteration. (Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”)

Jonathan Bernstein comments acerbically:

It seems that Bai has heard of Jimmy Carter. That’s good! Now, my assignment for Matt Bai: go back and read about Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign….Citing Jimmy Carter to make a point that thirty years ago “you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office” is like citing Spiro Agnew to make the point that at forty years ago, only seriously accomplished politicians with a deserved reputation for personal integrity were considered for the Vice Presidency.

The rest is an epic takedown of the entire piece. Read it. Reporters really, really need to stop drawing monumental conclusions from a few tiny data points. Especially when they have to twist even the few data points they have in order to do it.

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

It’s amazing that such groundless political “analysis” continues to be produced by the New York Times. Does Matt Bai simply not understand the fundamentals of American politics, or is he just giving his readers what they want? Skimming the comments section of his think piece on the “meaning” of Tuesday’s elections, there is an overwhelming agreement that the early primaries of 2010 forebode a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Bai’s motives are a mystery. But he’s definitely telling his readers (or at least, many of them) what they want to hear.

John Sides:

I went easy on Matt Bai in my earlier post. Jon Bernstein does not.

More Bernstein:

By the way: when I was looking into the Matt Bai article earlier today, I wound up running into a terrific reported piece by Cokie and Steven Roberts on voter unrest.  In 1980; mid-June, 1980, actually, post-primaries, pre-conventions.  It’s from the NYT Magazine (pdf), and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.  Lots of interviews with lifelong Dems, many 2nd and 3rd generation Dems, ready to jump, as of course many of them would later that year.  Also, it’s fun to read quotations from early-career Barbara Mikulski and Chris Dodd, plus a bonus appearance by a certain Baltimore pol who is mostly known to us now for his daughter, not his own career.

Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that without an internet to blame for everything, it’s that newfangled television that’s disrupting traditional ties, including party ties.  Yup, at least as late as 1980, TV was still the newish thing that was destroying traditional politics.  Which means that we’ll be seeing “the internet is changing everything” stories until Ezra Klein is drawing social security.  At least.

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