It's an instant truism that Tuesday's elections were bad news for incumbents, both those running and others who tremble at the prospect of another uprising in November. But in fact, Tuesday's outcomes turned to a great extent on issues and personalities peculiar to individual races.
Take the defeat of the veteran Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. An 80-year-old in his fifth term, Specter is the consummate insider. In his victory speech, Specter's upstart primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, declared: "This is what democracy looks like: a win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C."
Sestak may have sounded like a "tea partyer," but in fact he is a liberal Democrat who has already served two terms in Washington and, like Specter, supported the 2009 stimulus bill that was anathema to small-government activists. Specter's downfall was more a reaction to his opportunistic party switch — devastatingly attacked in a Sestak campaign advertisement — than it was to his support for big government.
In Arkansas, moderate Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff not by a conservative outsider but by an experienced Democratic politician who ran to her left with the support of organized labor. Like Sestak, her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, boasted that "people in Washington are getting mighty nervous about what is happening in Arkansas." So they may be, but Halter's strong showing seems to reflect ideological objections to Lincoln rather than a generic anti-incumbent sentiment.
Ironically, the best evidence for the "throw the rascals out" thesis comes from a race in which there was no incumbent. In the Republican contest for an open Senate seat in Kentucky, Rand Paul, son of Ron, defeated Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Grayson isn't an incumbent, but he had the support of the party establishment, in particular Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Paul, who has embraced the "tea party" movement, predicted a "day of reckoning" in Washington, and it's indisputable that disaffection with Congress is rife. The insurgents who shook the establishment on Tuesday may well be the harbinger of a mass expulsion of incumbents in the fall. Still, some caution is in order.
As the economy improves, anger at the Congress that rescued Wall Street and the banking industry may subside.
Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Edward G. Rendell, spoke the truth when he called Tuesday's results "a wake-up call for every Republican, Democrat or anybody around the country." But once they rouse themselves, at least some incumbents may find that reports of their extinction were greatly exaggerated.
So, we hope, is the view that voters are bent on purging incumbents regardless of their views or accomplishments. However emotionally satisfying it may be, that impulse is unworthy of a democracy.