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Mark Olmsted Headshot

The Fool's Game of Anti-Incumbency

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See if this sounds familiar. An idealist wants to change things. Whether on the left or right, he wants America to be great, strong, thriving, fair. He watches TV, reads the paper, shakes his head at the gridlock, the opportunism, the lack of common sense. He decides to do something about it. He runs for Congress, sure he will do things differently. His strategy? Get a lot of small contributions from a wide range of regular people, and come from behind to topple the incumbent.

He rapidly learns how things work. No campaign can prevail without media; TV time must be purchased. And the real money to do so is only available from those for whom he can do things if he wins. A savvy campaign manager is brought in. Tells him what to say and not to say. Scrubs the website. Hires polling and an ad agency. Our idealist finds out attack ads work best -- even if they don't feel good. Until he gets attacked back, of course. Suddenly it's personal. Now he wants to win if only to beat his opponent.

Still, an inner vow is made. He will never be beholden to the "special interests" that financed his campaign. And yet when he does win, the sharp Chief of Staff he hires schedules lobbyist after lobbyist to meet him. Each of them come in referred by higher-ups in his party caucus, those responsible for the committee assignments which determine whether he will get anything done at all. But that will take time. In his first year, all he really does is vote the way he's told and service constituent requests.

In only 18 months, he is campaigning again. He has no real accomplishments to speak of but he can hang on to his seat if he raises enough money. He needs to. In D.C. you have to throw parties, pay private tuition for your kids, pick up that round of drinks. All kind of "expenses" slip through the ethics radar. Junkets. Fundraisers. Dinners. You discover you can live rich without being rich, if you know the right people

Three of four terms in, you co-sponsor your first legislation, get some face time on cable news, bring home some serious pork because you were willing to horse-trade. You have a few too many at some parties, and some people know some things that grant them leverage over you. And then there were those texts -- even though she said she deleted them. You still want to change the world, but you don't know how to get out of the cycle of fundraising and favors. It's just the way Washington works, you tell yourself, even as you cringe at some of the votes you've taken to get higher up and bring home more bacon.

Then an anti-incumbent mood sweeps the nation. Someone angry and energetic is calling you a "Washington insider." You hate that she's right. You wonder if it's worth fighting for your seat. Maybe you should just retire and live large as a lobbyist. But you're addicted to the daily whiff of power and self-importance. You tell yourself your opponent won't do any better for the people of your district or the nation. So you soldier on, even though you're not even sure what you even believe anymore.

How many times has this scenario played out? How many times are the voters going to fall for the mythology of the outsider coming in to "shake things up" in Washington, even though that's exactly what the guy they have in there now once said?

This is the reality. We have a system that does not reward who gets the most and best legislation passed. Our system rewards the congressman who raises money most effectively. And then we ask that same person to change the system that has rewarded him for working it more effectively than his opponent.

I don't like a lot of Congressmen, some of them are indeed crooks and liars. But this kneejerk "anti-incumbent" fever is frankly pathetic. Politicians (with the exception of some real heroes I thank God daily for) are just human beings who react quite logically to some very juicy carrots and some very big sticks. The only ones that are immune either come from great wealth or represent overwhelmingly partisan districts -- which presents its own set of thorny issues.

The electorate needs to vote for the men and women who pass legislation they agree with. Period. Reproaching them for acting like politicians instead of statesmen is rather like getting mad at your car for not flying. You can trade it in for a new model, but it's not going to take off either.