The Prospect‘s Paul Waldman is waging quite a war this year on dumb political memes. Earlier it was the idiotic media obsession with presidential vacations. And now it’s the hardy perennial attacks on Members of Congress for “losing touch” with constituents by living in Washington, or at least not spending the money to pretend they live back in God’s Country.
[T]his is the kind of inane faux-controversy that consumes campaigns, where one side pretends to take umbrage at something with no importance, then the press pretends it means something because a candidate is “on the defensive.” But as far as phony issues go, this one is actually revealing—not because of anything it says about the senators, but because of what it says about the often absurd and contradictory expectations we have of our representatives. We berate them for being lazy and not getting enough done, but at the same time, we get mad if they spend too much time in the place where they’re supposed to be working.
The flip side of this vulnerability, of course, is the growing trend of Members–mainly in the House–actually bunking down in their offices for the two nights a week they’re generally required to sleep in Sin City.
Those who accept that their job is in Washington to the extent of renting or buying living space there generally keep a home back in the state or district from whence they hail–another major inconvenience of a congressional life. But some with less insane levels of wealth will cut corners and use some family address or keep a tiny pied a terre, or even less. Trouble is, this is one of the first stops for oppo researchers.
Some of you may recall that the successful effort to topple House Speaker Tom Foley back in 1994 relied in part on an ad dramatizing a post office box that was allegedly his “residence” in the district. I don’t remember the exact year, but a Republican opponent of Robert Byrd ran an ad showing the Taj Mahal and Byrd’s DC home, with the question: “What do these two buildings have in common”? The answer, of course, was “Neither of them are in West Virginia.” (This attack line is probably more effective with a senator whose name is not emblazoned on countless buildings Back Home).
But this year may set records, with (so far) three U.S. senators being loudly accused of “losing touch” by actually living in Washington rather than their home states: Thad Cochran of MS (this was a subplot of the whole Rose Cochran saga: Thad had abandoned his wife and his state!); Pat Roberts of KS; and now Mary Landrieu of LA.
The first two targets were rather predictable, since they involved septuagenarian solons being accused of losing touch with the intense conservative ideology of their party’s “base.” Landrieu, however, is in her fifties; is not dealing with any intraparty challenges; and well, is kinda hard to imagine as a non-Louisianan.
I mean, seriously, anyone who’s spent any time around Mary Landrieu has no doubt where she’s from. Just listen to her talk. Her daddy was mayor of New Orleans; now her brother is in the same gig. She’s as firmly rooted as the Andrew Jackson memorial in Jackson Square. I just don’t see the attacks working on her.
Moreover, as Waldman points out, Landrieu’s re-election campaign is focused intensely on depicting her as a big-time Washington playa. So the “losing touch” argument could even reinforce her message.
In any event, this really is a dumb “issue” to raise against anyone. And it really should be easy for those being accused of “losing touch” to just say: “Yeah, I live in Washington, because you sent me there, but I don’t drink the water and I can’t wait to leave.” Look at the First Family, for God’s sake. Nobody thinks they’ve “gone native”–certainly not the social lions who are always complaining about the Obamas not hitting the local dinner and fundraiser circuit. The heart is not necessarily where the property registry calls home. Truth is, I’d guess the dream home for a majority of congresscritters is one of those golf resort McMansions that could be absolutely anywhere south of the Snow Belt. So maybe it’s a better idea to evaluate them on the jobs they are doing.