“All politics is local.” Though he didn’t create that saying, the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts made it not only popular but a law of politics, at least when it comes to congressional campaigns.
In the past, local concerns were practical concerns. Would a member of Congress bring home federal contracts creating new jobs? Would the member get funding for a new bridge?
No matter what the major national issues of the day, voters supposedly made their decisions based on local concerns relating to their own lives. Candidates were advised to talk about better roads not a better foreign policy.
It’s time to declare Tip O’Neill’s law dead. The world has changed and what once were local races for Congress or governor have given way to a number of new forces. Today, when people vote, they have a lot more than local concerns in mind, and they are subject to more than local influences.
While local concerns persist, the electorate is divided on ideological grounds with that split running across the entire country. All issues everywhere seem to boil down to a partisan debate on the role of government in a society of free people.
Take Maine’s Second District race between Democrat Emily Cain and Republican Bruce Poliquin. Their TV ads are devoted to blasting their opponent’s record, implying how badly they would behave politically in Congress. That sounds like a traditional campaign, based on candidates’ Maine records, distorted or not.
But either of them would soon become a foot soldier in the partisan-ideological wars in Washington. Each would end up voting in line with her or his party. That’s why national money is pouring in.
Then, there’s the referendum on President Obama. The recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of voters, both for and against him, consider this year’s congressional election to be just that.
Although his appearances are limited, Obama is using congressional and gubernatorial campaigns to bolster his support for the remainder of his term.
And, as has become usual, 2014 congressional campaigns are a part of the 2016 presidential campaigns that are already under way. Hilary Clinton’s national travels, including her stop in Maine, are as much related to her own presidential ambitions as they are to supporting congressional candidates.
In the more open GOP presidential field, potential presidential candidates are using the opportunity provided by the congressional campaigns to begin to build their own organizations for the forthcoming races.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is using his role as the leader of the effort to elect GOP governors as a way to build his own campaign, and he seems to be spending more time on the road than in the Garden State. He has become a key player in Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election push.
Of course, outsiders have long helped state candidates in presidential off-year elections. But increasingly, their involvement is meant to help them create their own state campaign organizations, identify donors and line up future supporters among the officials they help elect.
Yet another and powerful sign of the nationalization of state congressional races is the role of people who are coming to be called the American oligarchs. The term “oligarch” has usually been applied to Russian billionaires, who exert enormous influence in their own country.
Now, the New York Times labels as oligarchs the billionaires who spend unlimited amounts in attempts to influence American elections. The Times says they amount to their own political parties.
Almost all of them promote conservative positions. They have well-defined policies on environmental protection, tax reform and tax breaks for business, and support for Israel. On the other side, some big money backs gun control.
These big players keep all state campaigns under review and decide where their massive infusions of money can elect candidates favorable to their interests. Under a recent Supreme Court decision, they can give as much as they want and do not have to disclose the amount of their contributions or even all of their contributors.
In the days when the O’Neill’s law applied, face-to-face meetings with voters were essential. Now, campaigns are won or lost based on television spots, and the oligarchs can buy all the TV time they want.
These forces plus the dominant influence of the national media as compared with local outlets can allow issues like a travel ban to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus to the U.S. to push other, more routine concerns aside.
Ideology wars, presidential politics, the oligarchs and the media have changed the law.
All politics is national.