Monday, February 2, 2015

All Politics Is No Longer Local

These days, party identity trumps all.

Tip O’Neill, the legendary Democratic House Speaker of the 70s and 80s, devotes a chapter of his book Man of the House to the title, “All Politics is Local.” He recalls his race for the Cambridge City Council early in his career, the only race he ever lost, after which his father noted that he had received a tremendous vote in other areas of the city but hadn’t worked hard enough in his own backyard. His dad’s advice? “All politics is local.”

O’Neill goes on to note that the lesson also applies to Congress: “You can be the most important congressman in the country, but you had better not forget the people back home.”

But, as the saying goes, “that was then and this is now.” In the evolution of American politics over the past 30 years, the “local” aspect of winning elections, though still relevant, has taken a back seat to party affiliation and ideological orientation. Members with strong local ties to their constituencies have been displaced by voters who feel that party identity and how it relates to the national leadership and national issues are more important than simply liking their local representatives.
It would be hard to find members of Congress more in tune with their constituencies than Democrat Gene Taylor from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Elected in a special election in 1989 after the GOP incumbent died in a plane crash, Taylor held the seat for 20 years by large electoral margins.

In 2008, while Obama received 32 percent of the vote (his lowest percentage in any state) at the top of the ticket in the 4th congressional district, Gene Taylor received 74.5 percent of the vote for his reelection. At the time, Taylor had received less than 60 percent of the vote only once, in 1996, but had recovered and had been polling over 70 percent consistently since.

Hurricane Katrina struck a devastating blow to his district and to Taylor himself. His own house, more than 100 years old, was washed away, along with his neighborhood. He personally rebuilt his home and led the fight against the insurance industry, which claimed that flooding, not wind, was responsible for the damage to thousands of homes along the coast. That experience deepened his personal connection with his constituents.

His popularity and connection to his constituency, however, just weren’t enough in 2010, in an off-year election when reaction to Obama’s health care bill was at its zenith. Taylor was washed out of his seat by a Republican tide (the final vote count was 105,613 to 95,243) even though he’d voted against Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank banking bill and other Democratic initiatives. He had long been the most conservative Democrat in the House, had voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, was endorsed by the NRA and had a solid pro-life voting record.

But after 20 years, Taylor had gotten careless. In 2007, he was a rare Democrat who voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, sensing—correctly—that his constituents along the Mississippi coast would not find her San Francisco-brand leadership palatable. But in 2009, in order to preserve his subcommittee chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee, he had voted for her. In the volatile 2010 election, that was all Taylor’s opponent, a state legislator named Steve Palazzo, needed.

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