Tuesday's Primaries: All Politics Is National

Iowa Primary,x-default
Charlie Neibergall / AP

We weren't supposed to feel this way, so distant and angry about government on an Election Day. President Barack Obama's stunning rise—an unknown, an African-American, powered by the twin engines of youth and the Internet—was said to be proof that our political system was healthy, that it was responsive, that it was still running as the Founders built it, from the ground up. But on the biggest primary day of the year, with contests in 11 states, it doesn’t seem that way to dismayed voters across the country.

The economy remains iffy and unemployment high. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are costly and of questionable effectiveness. The president's cherished health-care reform is unpopular and not yet in place. Voters are wondering, and worrying, whether all the money we've spent to dig out of recession will bankrupt us and our kids. And then there is the seeming helplessness of the government to do much about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or to get the straight story out of the Brits who run BP from their headquarters in London.

Polls (the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal, for example) show that basic distrust of government is at an all-time high. Ratings of the political parties are at an all-time low. So is regard for Congress as an institution. "Incumbent" is an epithet. Voters are furious—that's the obvious part—but are searching for a positive way to channel their fury.

For Republicans, interestingly, one way seems to be to pick women as candidates. Call it the Palin Effect. The GOP has very little entree to the black community; Hispanics are problematic, given the party's general antagonism to "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. But the one "blue" place the GOP can go demographically is gender. Female outsiders are all the rage, and they are probably going to win in several places today: Carly Fiorina (GOP Senate race) and Meg Whitman (GOP governor's race) in California; State Rep. Nikki Haley in South Carolina. In Iowa, former GOP governor Terry E. Branstad hopes that Sarah Palin's endorsement will make voters there forget is an establishment figure by definition.

The anger at the grassroots is real, but the paradox of politics today is that it generally takes big money (often personal wealth) or a national apparatus to tap into it. Fiorina (HP) and Whitman (eBay) are examples. If Lt. Gov. Bill Halter defeats Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic primary in Arkansas, it won't be because of the local organization he built. It will be because national labor unions poured money and manpower into the state to attack Lincoln for anti-union apostasy.

Another example is Rand Paul's recent victory in Kentucky. Everyone (including me) depicted that race as David (Paul) against the Goliath of Sen. Mitch McConnell's state machine. But it turns out that Paul tapped into his father's national libertarian network—and the net-based fundraising resources it could provide—to win the contest.

Former Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said that "all politics is local." But in the YouTube age that is no longer true. All politics is everywhere, especially on a day like today.

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