Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The audacity of incumbency: Feinstein’s no-debate strategy

How does an incumbent Democratic senator win reelection when unemployment in her not-so-Golden State has exceeded ten percent for over three years and its business climate continues to place near the bottom of various national rankings. Diane Feinstein’s approach was simple: Ignore your opponent and outspend her 15 to 1.

For voters who encountered the name only on last Tuesday’s ballot, Feinstein’s Republican adversary was Elizabeth Emken—a talented lady who graduated from UCLA in 1984, worked for years at IBM as an efficiency and cost-cutting expert, and served as Vice President for Government Relations at Autism Speaks, a major advocacy organization for developmentally disabled children like Emken’s son, Alex.

One reason this resume was never encountered by millions of Californians is because Senator Feinstein refused to debate Emken even once. Feinstein’s imperious attitude was on full display a couple of months ago when San Francisco reporter Mark Matthews asked the senator why she hadn’t agreed to debate Emken. Feinstein responded shortly that she was running her own campaign.

When Matthews pressed the issue by saying, “Wouldn’t it be better for voters to hear both sides?” Feinstein replied, “Thank you very much,” stood up, patted Matthews on the shoulder, and walked away.

The condescension exhibited toward Matthews was also an expression of contempt for California voters. Why give the poor darlings a chance to hear another perspective when you have a massive campaign war-chest and an overwhelming name recognition advantage?

“We need to get rid of career politicians,” is a refrain I’ve heard repeatedly over the years. In accord with that sentiment Californians established term limits for their state legislators. If voters wish to put limits on Congressional office holders, however, they have to reject the incumbent in an election—something that’s not likely to happen as long California’s union-dominated political landscape looks like it does.

A powerful 20-year incumbent like Feinstein didn’t need to employ any tricks from the Democrats’ political playbook. There were no kids voicing their enthusiastic toilet-trained support for her candidacy (a la Jerry Brown’s Prop. 30 ad). There were no menacing portraits of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers threatening to turn California into a vast corporate-controlled wasteland (a la “No” on Prop. 32 ).

There was simply a supremely confident (one might say arrogant) senator facing the camera and mouthing a few platitudes about Medicare, Social Security, and “a woman’s right to choose.”

The result: A landslide for entrenched incumbency—even a narrow win in Riverside County. Please, no more empty words about hating career politicians unless you’re prepared to vote them out of office.

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