For more than half a century, the reigning ethos in Washington was neatly articulated in the succinct wisdom of Speaker Sam Rayburn, words imparted to freshmen members of Congress when they first arrived in the nation's capital: "If you want to get along, go along."
A sprawling congressional office building is named after the former speaker from Texas, and in January some of the new members of the congressional class chosen Tuesday by voters will set up shop in the Rayburn House Office Building. Some of them, however, will know in their hearts that they got here on the strength of a competing code of conduct than the one imparted by Rayburn, and it goes like this: If you want to get along, make damn sure you don't go along.
The midterm elections of 2010 will be talked about for many years. Amid all the loose talk of whores, witches, bad hair, tea parties, extremists – all while virtually ignoring two raging foreign wars – one little-discussed event may stand out as the defining act that ushered in a new age in American politics: the unceremonious dumping of Sen. Robert Bennett
If you haven't heard of Bennett – or could never quite peg his state – do not feel bad. Bennett is a nondescript moderate-to-conservative member of the Republican leadership who won re-election in 2004 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. He is not a charismatic or handsome man, a fact he made fun of himself in that 2004 campaign with billboards that read: "Better Looking Than Abraham Lincoln (But Just Barely)." Bennett has the right pedigree for Utah, too. His father Wallace Bennett served four terms beginning in 1950, his grandfather was a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he grew up in Salt Lake City, where he was active in the LDS church.
So what scandal did Bob Bennett commit? Apparently, his sin was that he worked across the aisle with Democrats occasionally, most fatefully in an effort to try to address the financial meltdown. And so he was replaced in May at the state party convention, ignominiously finishing third – the rare sitting senator dumped without a hint of a scandal, primarily because he dared to "go along."
All year, we've seen similar impulses – in both parties. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter replaced in a Democratic primary by Joe Sestak; in Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked protégé Trey Grayson was leveled by Tea Party-backed Rand Paul. It was tea time in Alaska, too, where Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, despite having much more name recognition and cash, was unhorsed by another grass-roots conservative, Joe Miller.
In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was pummeled from both directions
: First, she was nearly upset in the primary by a candidate who deemed her insufficiently liberal. Next, in the general election she is virtually being made out to be Barack Obama's cousin.
"I think I think there's a Tea Party tidal wave coming," Rand Paul said shortly after winning his party's nomination. "I think it's going to sweep a lot of incumbents from office."
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Actually, that phenomenon may already have taken place. Republican moderates, ranging from "the ladies of Maine" to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, to Bennett's Utah colleague Sen. Orrin Hatch, may be in the process of neutering themselves. Thus, on the eve of the election, Rand Paul's threat no longer sounds like an idle boast. At the beginning of this campaign season, Democrats were thought to be safely in control with their 39-seat cushion in the House and their 10-seat lead in the Senate. Now many party leaders are publicly nervous.
The press is often blamed for the lack of civility in American public discourse, but these candidates hardly needed a facilitator to talk trash to – and about – one another. Barbara Boxer's hair is "so yesterday," said Carly Fiorina. Should Meg Whitman be called "a whore," in the corporate sense, wondered an aide to Jerry Brown in a taped phone call. In South Carolina, two men who could never be called gentlemen claimed to have had sex with Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley – after she was married. Some Pennsylvania cad crudely claimed that he had slept with Christine O'Donnell -- after she did not have sex with him.
It was a bad morning on the 2010 campaign when a Democratic incumbent didn't call his Republican challenger an "extremist" – although in the recent Pennsylvania debate the two Senate candidates tossed the word back-and-forth as though it were a grenade with its pin only halfway out. For its part, the GOP was happy to benefit, if not encourage, the kind of followers who handcuff a journalist covering an event at a public school (Alaska's Joe Miller) or who stomp on a lady's head outside another rally (Kentucky's Rand Paul.)
Speaking of Obama, despite all the loose talk about creeping socialism from the conservative side, obscured is the fact that the controversial health care reform bill didn't put a single insurance adjuster or private enterprise paper-pusher out of business. And so, we are told that the American people are angry, a description that seems to baffle liberals.
Here's the rub. Long before this political campaign season got cracking, Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, marshaled support for the $814 billion stimulus bill by telling the president – and later the American people – that if the bill stalled unemployment in this country could reach 8 percent. Guess what? When Americans go to the polls Tuesday, the unemployment rate will have been 9.4 or higher for 17 months – only weeks after the White House got off its strange "Recovery Summer" communications effort.
It's understandable that millions of Americans are convinced that politics is an insiders' game, easily manipulated, and not doing nearly enough good in the world. It's no wonder voters are angry. They want to punish someone – many voters don't even seem to know whom – nor do they seem to know that those they may be hurting are themselves. Thirty-nine seats is what the Republicans need to capture on Tuesday to rule the House and install John Boehner as speaker, in place of Nancy Pelosi. In the Senate, the magic number is 10 for Republicans to become the majority. The pundits have all issued their last-minute prognostications. Now it's up to the people.
Video: You Said It
We asked Americans across the country how excited they are about the midterm elections.
Click the play button below to watch their responses: