Ten years ago, as the 2002 midterm elections — the first since the 9/11 attacks — approached their finish, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly observed that the parties were still almost evenly divided and that “the battle between the two great parties for a sustainable post-New Deal primacy” was far from settled. He also noted that in such a volatile and evenly divided political climate, “the Odd Man is in.” The late Mr. Kelly (he tragically died covering the Iraq War in 2003) predicted that American politics would get even more nasty due to its parity and hyper-competitiveness: “We will be seeing a lot more of all those things that nice people find so distasteful in politics. (As a not obsessively nice person, hurrah.)”
While I did not share Mr. Kelly’s enthusiasm for the Bush-Cheney administration, he hit the nail on the head in this highly prescient column. Kelly identified three trends that would come to the fore in the new “Age of Parity.”
1)”Seriously unattractive candidates.” ”If you are somebody who strikes many people as appalling, or at least uninspiring, and yet you would like to rule the world — congratulations. Parity politics means that now anybody really can grow up to be president. … In an ordinary time, a politician who is persistently unattractive to a large percentage of voters — Mrs. Clinton, for example — cannot reasonably hope to prevail in statewide or national general elections. But parity perversely rewards such a candidate. Call it the Gore-Bush Rule of Parity: a passionately divided core electorate means that any major party nominee will get 48 percent of the vote, no matter how weak that candidate is in one way or another. (Well, almost any. There remains a floor the voters won’t go below; call it the Torricelli Exception.) To win, the nominee need move only a relative handful of votes; the rest are givens. Thus, the benefits of mass appeal and electioneering competence are minimized, and so are the penalties of unattractiveness and incompetence. Dweebs, feebs, stiffs, and plates of lox, awake! Your time has come!”
The “Torricelli Exception” refers to former New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli, who was forced out on corruption charges and resigned from the Democratic ticket after the deadline for doing so. (The New Jersey Supreme Court allowed Democrats to substitute Frank Lautenberg on the ballot despite the passing of the deadline for changes; Lautenberg still holds the seat today).
Kelly was absolutely correct that more controversial candidates would run: 2004 brought us the problematic candidacies of Al Sharpton, former Senator Carol Braun (who lost after one term due to ethical controversies), and Dennis Kucinich. In 2008, Hillary Clinton started out as the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden ran despite being forced out of the 1988 race on plagiarism charges, Kucinich ran again, and John Edwards ran despite impregnating his mistress. Even Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert got in on the Democratic act, briefly running in his home state of South Carolina. The only strange candidate in the GOP field was Alan Keyes, an outspoken conservative who has repeatedly run for the U.S. Senate and the GOP presidential nomination and lost everywhere.
As if to prove Kelly’s point, Clinton ended up as secretary of state and Biden now has the second most powerful job in America.
The rise of bizarre candidates continued in the first midterm election of the Obama era: In 2010, Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell in Delaware was forced to run an ad denying that she was a witch, while Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle said that she might pursue “Second Amendment remedies” if she lost. In California, both gubernatorial candidates called each other political “whores” for selling out to special interests, while in New York, an actual boss of prostitutes shared the debate stage with the major party candidates for governor. (She asserted: “The career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in this state. I might be the only person sitting on this stage with the right experience to deal with them.”) In Ohio, a Republican House candidate was found dressing up as a Nazi soldier.
2) “More really seriously unattractive candidates.” “Parity also encourages and rewards the politically ambitious whose appeal is so radically limited that a major party nomination is out of the question. Fringe candidates are the new kingmakers and king-breakers. Of the past three presidential contests, arguably two were decided by the vote-leeching effects of borderline candidates who could never win the office for themselves: Ross Perot made Bill Clinton president with 43 percent of the vote, and Ralph Nader put George W. Bush in with 48 percent. The third-party messiahs know their new power and naturally will exercise it — and this will shape and distort the politics of the major parties. And voters will recall fondly the days when Pat Buchanan seemed sort of far out there.”
This prediction has not yet come true: third-party candidates had little effect on the elections of 2004 and 2008. It is possible that former Virginia Republican Representative Virgil Goode, representing the Constitution Party, could deny Mitt Romney Virginia.
3) “More desperate actions in desperate times.” “Bob Torricelli’s I-can’t-win-so-I-quit abandonment of the Senate race in New Jersey, James Jeffords’ no-one-likes-me-so-I’m-going-to-take-the-Senate-from-them abandonment of the Republican Party — these are harbingers. With everything up for grabs every election cycle, and every race critical, nobody can be expected to draw the line at anything. Expect more vote thievery, more contested elections, more stunts of the Torricelli-Jeffords genre, more dirty tricks, more outrageous lies and slurs, more of everything that the League of Women Voters would rather see less of.”
Mr. Kelly was right — campaigns seem to get ever nastier: in 2010, an ad referred to California Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell as a “demon sheep.” Just last month, Republican Majority Leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Mike Turzai boasted that his new voter ID law would help defeat President Obama by suppressing the inner city Democratic vote.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case means that campaigns will start earlier and voters will be bombarded with ads and emails from “independent” super PACs for months. Mr. Kelly concluded that the Age of Parity and Odd Candidates In “should be fun, in a grim sort of way.” He’s almost certainly right about that, too: The elections of the next decade probably won’t lack for entertainment value. The nation’s severe economic problems aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, thus giving birth to another “Age of Anxiety.” When the voters are angry and evenly divided, we tend to see a lot of unorthodox candidates.