When No Politics Is Local

Scott and Paul have admirably covered the waterfront of the Ossoff-Handel race yesterday, which Handel won Handel-y. There is one further angle to ponder, however: the decisive end of the era of “all politics is local” theory of House races.  “All politics is local” is the slogan of the late Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House back in the Reagan era, and it reflected his view, and long-time Democratic practice, that the secret to resisting an adverse national tide of opinion was to select good local candidates who emphasize local issues over national issues.

This fit with the Democratic Party’s standard New Deal operating procedure of being a patronage and pork barrel machine. Candidates could run on “what they did for the district,” and keep their distance from unpopular national Democrats. In 1984, a large number of Democratic House candidates (including many incumbents) came up with excuses to avoid appearing with Walter Mondale. During the 1980s, it was typical to see or hear local broadcast ads for House candidates that did not mention the candidate’s party. Most of the time you were safe in assuming that candidate was the Democrat.

So let’s look again at Georgia 6, which was covered last night and for the last two months like a national election. Democrats fielded a candidate who didn’t even live in the district, and whose huge campaign bankroll from rich Hollywood types probably backfired on him, making it easy to frame the election as Donald Trump vs. Nancy Pelosi. These conditions nationalized the election, and despite Trump’s weakness in that district (he won it in November by less than 2 points), voters probably reflected more on the national contours of the candidates than any local angle that Ossoff could have played.

Ossoff’s attempt to run as something of a moderate is now being held against him by the Resistance Left, which will demand Dem House candidates next year repudiate attempts at moderation. They are emboldened lately by Jeremy Corbyn’s strong showing in the British snap election, and will want the same here.

The point is: nationalizing House elections probably hurts Democrats these days, because the Democratic Party is less the old pork barrel machine than it is an identity politics machine. When you centralize everything in Washington right down to access to public school bathrooms, and politicize more and more aspects of life and tie it to personal identity, you choke the life out of local politics. Democrats are reaping what they have sown.


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