16 May 2010

The Establishment Wins In The End

Slate: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
The myth of the "anti-establishment" candidate.

But for all the pitchfork-sharpening, what happens when anti-establishment candidates arrive in Washington? One of two things, usually: Either they quickly adapt to the establishment, or they serve for one term.

Everyone promises to change Washington. And everyone compromises when they get there.

[T]here's what Shor calls the "basic re-election imperative." "Whatever you want to accomplish," he says, "you can't do it in a single term." Re-election itself requires becoming part of the Washington establishment—candidates have to raise money for fellow party members in hopes that they'll return the favor, and they have to keep their heads down so as not to tick off the leadership. "Outsider" candidates often say they'll serve only one term, as Bob Bennett did in 1992. But those who have a good shot at re-election almost always take it, as Bob Bennett did in 1998 and 2004.

There's always a tension between the Washington establishment and the district back home. But it's a flexible one. When politicians "make the system work" for their district by bringing home goodies, constituents tend to give them some ideological leeway. Sometimes, though, the ideology gap becomes too great, the rubber band snaps, and suddenly Bob Bennett is looking for a job. His "outsider" replacement might better reflect his district's ideology.

But by the time he's in a position to change the way Washington works, he will be, by definition, the establishment.

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