Sep 17, 2011

The Thirteen-Percenters

A recent Gallup poll showed that the congressional approval rating stands at a Dick Cheneyesquely anemic 13 percent. Imagine that—only 13 percent of us think that Congress is doing an adequate job, and it has not even been a full year since we elected them. (I'd like to meet some of those in the 13 percent, but they seem hard to locate.)
Furthermore, 65 percent expressed similar disappointment at their own representative in Congress. So if Mission Viejo were a representative city, only 35 percent of us believe that our representative, Gary Miller, is doing an adequate job. Yet, he ran unopposed in 2010, and was elected by a virtual landslide in 2008. 
OK, so what does that lowly 13-percent approval rating really mean?
It means people are angry at Congress, and believe that it is the fault of the members of the otherparty. That's about it.
Which is why Congress members are unconcerned about how they fare in such polls. Again take, for instance, Gary Miller. He is a member of the Tea Party caucus, exaggerated his military service record, voted for TARP (the bank bailout), resisted privatization of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae till he came up with a scheme that uses taxpayer backed guarantees—generally things that'll earn you the ire of the Tea Party and other Republicans. But only if you are a Democrat, perhaps one running in a Republican district. He has no such worries. Miller runs (or did run) from a Republican district. Likewise, Californians are fed up with their senators, especially Barbara "call me Senator" Boxer, and yet there is no doubt as to who we'll elect.
It takes a lot to unseat an incumbent. Conventional wisdom says that you need to outspend the incumbent 3:1 to have a shot, and given that the incumbent is already a safer bet, guess who the donors are going to favor? You need the quixotic Ross Perot to play spoiler for Bush the Elder—or an absolutely disastrous Gerald Fordian move like pardoning Tricky Dick—to be ousted. And today, even that may not suffice. A scandal can sometimes oust someone, like Anthony Weiner, if he is foolish enough to resign, or is a Democrat (is there even a difference anymore?) If they are Republicans like David Vitter, or Helen Chenoweth, a self-notarized note of forgiveness from God and/or spouse suffices.
Surely this is different in landmark elections. You know, the "Hope and Change" movement of 2008, or the "Take our Country Back" revolution of 2010?
Surprisingly, no.
What! So what of the fury of the American voter we heard about just before each of those elections? Remember when the lamestream media (FOX, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, FOX News, ...) blared 24/7 that a wave of anti-incumbency is spreading across the nation?
Did I not say lamestream media?  Wasn't that enough?
Here are the facts: In 2008, 90 percent of the incumbents were re-elected. In 2010, the bloodbath was heavier, but still resulted in 87 percent of the incumbents being re-elected. Historically, nine in ten incumbents are re-elected. That is a simple fact, easily verifiable by looking at past election results.
So how do we have the majority changing colors? Well, a 10-percent change is a change of about 43 seats in the House. That could be as big as an 86-seat shift, enough to cause a red House to turn blue or vice-versa.
So the next time you find yourself discussing politics, and someone remarks "I am sick of this inaction and indifference, let's vote the bums out," what they are really asking you to do is vote Republican or Democrat based on their own party affiliation. Try it: ask a Republican in Mission Viejo whom we should vote out, and they'll likely answer Obama, Boxer, or Feinstein. If they are knowledgeable, they may even know who Gary Miller is. Likewise, ask a Democrat if they'll vote out Boxer or Feinstein for a Republican like Carly Fiorina.
There is one notable and exceptional apparatus for ousting incumbents. It relies on a clever channeling of instantaneous rage into a special election.
What is this apparatus? A recall.
Gray Davis was ousted with relatively little effort, as were two Republicans in the Wisconsin senate recently. The tactic often relies on a concentrated stealth effort where the incumbent is often taken by surprise, and left with little time to do his fund-raising and campaigning as usual. Couple that withvoter apathy, and you have the makings of a clever steal.
I'll illustrate with a local example.  In February 2010, the Mayor of Mission Viejo, Lance MacLean wasrecalled. The final tally was 
  • Votes cast to recall MacLean: 7,370 (50.1%)
  • Votes cast to keep MacLean: 7,351 (49.9%)
That is 19 votes—a wafer-thin margin. One of the main reasons cited by the recall campaigners was that his taxpayer-funded healthcare would have cost us some $250,000 over his lifetime. There were a slew of other allegations against him, and recall signatures were collected from the general public. On the face of it, who could argue? Hey, voters dislike the idea of taxpayer monies going to things like elected officials' healthcare, they dislike the fact that he voted for a 100-percent pay increase for the council, etc. But how many of them actually verified the allegations, their impact, the relative merits and demerits before signing the recall petition?
Unknown, but some 14,000 signatures were obtained (only 9,000 valid signatures were required) for the recall to be approved.
That number should set off an alarm. 14,000 wanted him recalled, but only 7,370 could actually bother to vote to recall him.
People will often sign any petition if it does not take much time, and it sounds like they are revolting against injustice. The recall election itself cost the city at least $260,000, so the potential savings from the lifetime healthcare benefits were lost even if MacLean had not been recalled! 
Besides, the healthcare figure was a lifetime benefit, so one wonders why he could not have been ousted in the regular elections a mere ten months later, without having to pay for a special election. Surely he was not going to use up all the $250,000 in benefits in the ten months till election day. As to the 100 percent increase, it was the first-ever raise for the council since the city was incorporated in 1988. And the sum? $500 per month. In a city with a budget of about $65 million per year.
Lance MacLean would have probably been recalled anyway, perhaps even deservedly, but there was a reason to have that recall election, and not wait till November. Removing an incumbent is historically a Herculean task. So instead, the smart political maneuver was the ambush of a special recall election.
Anti-incumbency is a myth, but voter apathy is real. And it is dangerous. So please, spend the time to familiarize yourself with the politicians you'll vote for next year. If you dislike Obama, make sure that the one you vote in his place is someone you find has a record that gives you hope for a real change. At least figure out which of the Republican candidates has the best track record for issues that matter to you. If you like Obama, find out why he deserves to be re-elected given his track record. What has he actually accomplished? Who, if anyone, could be better?
And if you are a Libertarian like me, well, hope that someone like Gary Johnson runs on the ticket. He'll lose, but if you vote for him, and he garners enough votes, we can start cracking the incumbency juggernaut in a decade or so. If you feel that a vote for such a candidate is a waste, know that in California any vote that is not for Obama is similarly a waste. At least you'd have voted for the one you think should run the asylum that is Congress.
Perhaps this country can do better if we voted with some thought beyond the party symbol that appears next to a candidate's name.

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