Monday, January 6, 2014

Are All Politics Still Local?

In our house most televised Red Sox games are at least a four-hour adventure. There’s pre-game, the game itself and then post-game coverage (“Extra Innings” followed by “Extra Innings Extra”). I watch it all and love to chuckle at some of the ridiculous and nonsensical responses that players give to the media. One of my favorite clichés is when a player says that he “stayed within himself.”  I have no idea what that means since so few of us can escape our bodies on a regular basis, but I guess I should be happy since they always seem pleased to have remained whole. I think I am especially tickled by these canned expressions because politics is full of clichés as well. There are a few that we’re sure to hear this election season, like “the only poll that counts is the one taken on election day” (which is actually true and I like to say it when I stay within myself) and “money doesn’t win elections but we will have enough to execute a winning strategy” (which is a desperate non sequitur told by campaigns that are way behind in fundraising).

The only political cliché easier to decipher than “we had to put runs on the board to win” is “all politics is local.” While the origin of the expression has been attributed to others, it was widely used by the late Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill to explain his political philosophy. He believed that congressional elections weren’t decided by national issues, but by how local issues and concerns were addressed. He thought that most voters were practical, not philosophical, and would be more inclined to vote for the politician who had been seen addressing his constituents’ needs. “All politics is local” has played out many times with high-profile members of Congress and U.S. Senators losing touch with their constituents and their seats shortly thereafter, but that tide may be turning. In recent years we saw national issues influence races around here like the Chafee-Whitehouse Senate race in 2006 and the Brown-Coakley special election in 2010. Tip O’Neill died twenty years ago this week and while his “all politics is local” phrase remains a favorite expression among pundits, this may be the year when it goes out of style. Inside the Beltway dysfunction has now become a local issue with the botched rollout of health care reform, and I expect that the Senate Democrats will suffer for it.

Without digging too deeply into the polls (which only matter on election day), a quick look at the 2014 U.S. Senate landscape shows that Democrats have a lot to lose. There are Democratic seats at stake in states like South Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina – states that voted for Mitt Romney, some in a big way.  Some are open seats and others have an incumbent, but they are all likely pickups for the GOP. It’s not that the incumbent lacks a connection with his or her constituents or has failed to appear at the local Jefferson Day dinner – but they're likely losers simply because each supported Obamacare and the White House has done a miserable job of implementing that signature legislation. Politifact ruled President Obama’s “if you like your health care plan you can keep it” as the Lie of the Year for 2013 giving serious ammunition to GOP candidates and creating a monstrous conundrum for those Democrats facing reelection. Do they distance themselves from the White House and risk alienating their base? Do they stick to their guns and hope to survive the anti-Washington fervor? I feel pretty good about making one prediction: I am certain they are hoping that Washington can “stay within itself” and that Tip O’Neill is right for one more year.

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