Washington Wins! (And Loses, Too!)

The limits of the “anti-Washington” frame for interpreting the elections

Continuing with the theme of insta-narratives from Tuesday’s elections, a co-worker passes on Ron Fournier’s analysis piece for The Associated Press, which advances this novel interpretation of the results in Arkansas (my emphasis):

Lincoln’s comeback strategy was twofold: She took the anti-incumbent mood head on — “I know you’re angry at Washington,” she said in one ad — while making out-of-state unions a political boogeyman more scary than even, well, a Washington incumbent.

These outsiders, she said, “try to tell us who we are and buy our votes.”

Former President Bill Clinton, still popular in his home state, especially among black voters, echoed Lincoln’s messages.

With Clinton and Arkansas business leaders behind Lincoln, the race became a fight between the state’s establishment (Lincoln, Clinton and the Chamber of Commerce) and the Washington establishment (unions).

Washington lost.

That’s right: a victory for a two-term incumbent U.S. senator (and before that, a congresswoman) is a defeat for Washington.

As it turns out, it’s not just Fournier who thinks so. Via Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, take a gander at this paragraph (again, emphasis added):

Tonight Arkansas Democrats nominated Blanche Lincoln, a proven independent voice for her state. In this race Blanche took on powerful special interests in Washington and won. In the Senate, she fights those same fights everyday, supporting home-state farmers, strengthening programs for childhood nutrition, and bolstering rural economic development. As Chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, Blanche has stood-up and delivered for every region of Arkansas.

That’s the opening of a memo sent to “interested parties” by Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee—an institution that, along with the White House, had backed Lincoln all along, and that is about as “Washington” as you can get.

So what’s the point? Well, for one thing many politicians will shamelessly adopt the message du jour if they think it’ll provide a fleeting advantage, but we already knew that. More importantly, these establishment/insurgent and Washington/anti-Washington storylines are, if not entirely wrong, pretty hopelessly reductive. As Jonathan Bernstein noted in the wake of the May 18 round of elections, many of the primary challenges we’re seeing this year aren’t a consequence of voters rejecting party leaders, but of choosing between candidates backed by different sets of leaders.

In other words, “Washington” isn’t some unitary, indivisible thing. The current White House, the DSCC, and other institutions that backed Lincoln are part of the Democratic firmament in Washington. So are the national labor unions (and, in a sense, the “netroots” organizations) that backed Halter. Whatever the outcome, “Washington” was going to win, and “Washington” was going to lose.

It’s possible, per Fournier, that the result in Arkansas did hinge, in the end, on which of the candidates was able to convince voters he or she was less “Washington” than the other. But we don’t know that, because we don’t really know what drove voters’ choices (in particular, we don’t know that local voters were thinking about things that mapped onto what national actors were saying).

Better, then, to stick with what we do know: after a heck of a scare, a candidate allied with one wing of Democratic Washington prevailed. And it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.