Thursday, May 27, 2010

Throw the bums out?

First published in The Day of New London 5.27.10

The mantra of today’s political world is “throw the bums out.” While it makes for great slogan it lacks real insight.

Two politicians from southeastern Connecticut who are anathema to the current political winds are longtime U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat, and former 2nd District congressman, Republican Rob Simmons. Both were unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Told by their own parties, largely due to the pressure and irrational rantings of fringe elements in each other’s political sphere, that their services are no longer required.

Dodd certainly went afoul of proper ethical conduct in his acquiring mortgages from Countrywide finance. It is simply not plausible that the chairman of the Senate banking committee was unaware that he was considered a VIP by Countrywide.

Dodd’s obfuscation and lack of candor were fuel on the fire for every group from MoveOn.org to tea party patriots. Here in Connecticut a small “Dump Dodd” movement metastasized into a national clarion call.

Simmons, who lost the Republican nomination to Linda McMahon, was tarred and feathered as being “one of them,” a career politician who wasn’t a pure Republican. Pro-choice, pro-environment and a willingness to embrace cap and trade placed Simmons in the cross-hairs of a minority in the minority party.

McMahon convinced Republicans to pick her over the insider with 30 years of service to country and party, trumpeting “it’s time to change Washington,” as a slogan.

From tea partiers in tri-corner hats to naked Code Pink gals strutting their stuff in front of BP oil corporate offices, the fringe elements of the political class are creating false expectations. After all has been said and done, we will need to govern. A slogan, television ad or bumper sticker never plowed a street or educated a child or fought a war.

The tea party patriots website, one of many, has three principles in its mission statement — fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.

Sounds great, but there is no specific legislation that followers promote. Similar groups like Code Pink’s offer great rhetoric on their website but no legislation to back it up. Both groups offer plenty of tchotchkes for purchase.

What will all this chest bumping and sloganeering bring us on Election Day?

In 1991 40,000 people gathered in Hartford to protest the state’s proposed income tax. The tax passed and over 90 percent of incumbent lawmakers were returned to office. The key reason was that no specific alternative was proposed by the opposition. There was a lot of heat with the protest but no fire.

Compare that to the 1994 Republican Party takeover of Capitol Hill. Led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and emboldened with 10 specific ideas called the Contract with America, voters were given options and the GOP maintained control until 2006.
Only a fraction of the electorate is engaged in the current political debate. Unless these fringe groups and their candidates produce substantive and specific alternatives, the status quo will win.

Back in 2003, Sen. Dodd and then-U.S. Rep. Simmons led a Connecticut team that saved the Groton sub base from closure. Had the base been shuttered the state would have lost 40,000 jobs and an estimated $3 billion in trickle-down spending. Those were the days when “insiders” were in vogue.

The next time the federal government decides to close the sub base the person replacing Dodd could be Ms. McMahon. Replacing Simmons at the table might be former television anchor Janet Peckinpaugh. Ms. Peckinpaugh is one of three Republicans running in an Aug. 10 primary for the 2nd Congressional seat now held by Democrat Joe Courtney, who beat Simmons in 2006.

The energy and enthusiasm of all these campaigns and the many zealots on both sides of the aisle is good theater. And in a democracy it is always a positive when citizens mobilize. But they need to bring concrete ideas.

Otherwise, voters faced with electing candidates without substantive agendas “to change Washington” will vote the bums back in.

Ben Davol is a veteran of numerous local, state and federal political campaigns, including the 2000 Simmons campaign. Once a Republican organizer, he is now registered as unaffiliated.

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