Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Incumbent Dudgeon

Perhaps we need to rework the expression into noblesse non oblige pas. Increasingly those of high birth or acquired position don't necessarily act with respect and kindliness.

I thought of this twice in the past week as I saw the behavior of two Massachusetts incumbent politicians. Both U.S. Senator John Kerry and State Senator Dianne Wilkerson seemed outraged. They have Democratic challengers, upstarts who say things about them they don't want to hear.

That seems to be a predictable officeholder reaction, but it should not be. We are left to wonder what it is about being returned repeatedly to office that would produce such a sense of entitlement. Over at Left Ahead!, we expect to get Kerry on for a podcast in late September or early October. Perhaps, he'll kick this around with us.

We should concentrate on our Junior Senator because his recent debate-like-object on WBZ-TV was good theater, widely viewed and a visual experience. Kerry and challenger Ed O'Reilly are physically striking for different reasons.

Kerry is quite tall, at least a head taller than O'Reilly (and Kerry has a looong head). So together, they recall the classic De Beaumont Mutt and Jeff cartoon side by side.

Unkind writers and cartoonists have compared Kerry to the sitcom butler Lurch. O'Reilly has his own burden, constantly explaining that he is not Joe Kennedy III and not related to the Kennedys. Apparently, this requires constantly answering the same questions and hearing the same comments from voters. O'Reilly seems to take it all in good spirits.

The breakdown in jollity and equanimity seem to come when the incumbents are cheek to jowl on stage with opponents. Kerry's moments were on BZ and Wilkerson's at the Wards 11 and 19 candidate forum.

Wilkerson started out pretty cool. To many of us in the audience, she and challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz didn't so much lose their composure early but did lose their way. They each strayed from specific questions asked to return to their favorite talking points. (I identify with that failing.)

At a couple points though, Wilkerson's underlying resentment popped up and out. She snapped at Chang-Díaz, seeming spiteful and clearly unhappy to have a primary challenger.

For example, Chang-Díaz, the former public-school teacher, had specific points about how to improve education and how money should be spent in urban school with the extra burdens of immigrants and more special-needs students. Wilkerson contended that there was plenty of money already. She simply held that she and the legislature had done their job on this. When Chang-Díaz pinpointed where additional resources might help, Wilkerson fairly snapped, "Anyone who thinks we're going to spend our way out of this is just dreaming."

At another juncture, referred to Chang-Díaz' judgment on her record with disdain, saying such analysis was flat wrong and saying "my challenger" with theatrical derision.

More telling was her rejoiner to how she and voters can work best together. "What we desperately need in this district is for you to elect more people to support me in what I do!"

It may be difficult or impossible for us ordinary mortals to understand how elected officials, or in their terminology public servants, expect gratitude along with re-election. Certainly both Wilkerson and Kerry resent hearing that their roles are anything less than perfectly performed.

From the outside, both incumbents were quite defensive under criticism. At BZ, Kerry's palpable disdain was worthy of the Hamish character's remark in Braveheart. He looked down at O'Reilly in every sense of the term.

Moreover, the following day, a "KERRY CAMP RESPONDS TO O'REILLY'S RIGHT WING SMEARS" memo hit the email circuit. How "Ed O'Reilly sounded a lot like John McCain and Sarah Palin" was not quite plain, nor was how his remarks earned him winger status.

The mailing quoted Kerry's campaign manager, Roger Lau, as saying, "Being a United States Senator is a serious job, and a candidate for that job shouldn't be allowed a free ride by sheer virtue of his novelty."

The body of the mailing was a series of "O'REILLY LIE" numbered one through five, with responses labeled "TRUTH" under each. While that seems like heavy-handed overkill, it shows that Kerry may not be worried about losing this election, he won't be messed with by an upstart.

To the first aspect, O'Reilly contends he has a shot. Few agree, but not because the Gloucester lawyer isn't bright enough or doesn't have good issues. Things he doesn't have include the legislative experience/record, the huge war chest and the campaign organization to sway voters and get them to the polls.

Some have told me this run clearly is an effort by O'Reilly to raise his profile for future campaigns and fund raising. We'll discuss all this tomorrow when he is the guest at a special Wednesday Left Ahead! podcast. He's certainly been putting in the face time in every nook in Massachusetts like a serious candidate.

We'd think that if Kerry were as confident as his team claims and the press agrees is justified that he'd be gracious and even humorous if not self-depreciating. He hasn't been, which comes back to the whole point. Long term incumbents can get prickly over challenges.

In Wilkerson's case, she's been in for eight two-year terms and in Kerry's four six-year ones. Kerry surely is even testier after coming up short in the last Presidential election. In this case, even the slimmest of chances of an upset may be more than he can bear to consider.

Often incumbents say that they'd rather not have primary challengers, that campaigning for both primary and general elections is a terrific waste of time and resources. They can be distracted from doing their elected jobs.

Yet what constituents repeatedly say they want is to see and be listened to by their officials. More face time tends to mean more loyal supporters and an easier go in primary or general elections.

What I didn't see from either Kerry or Wilkerson this week was enjoyment. They didn't seem to be having any fun. The challengers claimed shortcomings and even made errors in doing so. Neither incumbent enjoyed explaining, graciously, all they do for their voters. You'd think a chance to brag about your accomplishments without seeming like an egotist would be great. You'd think knocking about a challenger using wit and wisdom would be welcome.

This primary season here has only a week to run. No one's likely to get jolly in the next few days.

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