The first half of 2010 is nearly over and more than half the states have held primaries. So far, we have learned less about what voters want from politics this year than about what they don't want. And what they seem to want least is politics itself.
Or, more precisely, they don't want politicking.
"Politics" is that ancient Greek term that may refer to high-minded concepts but can also be a derogation for low-minded shenanigans.
Those shenanigans are what might be better called politicking, defined by one dictionary as "activity undertaken...especially to promote one's self." Shakespeare had something like this in mind when he referred to a particular villain as "meerly a politician" who "studied only his own endes." We might translate that today as "transparently political and self-interested."
Or we might just call it "politics as usual." And indeed, what makes 2010 stand out so far is that a variety of states have pushed back against the usual politics in some highly unusual ways.
This week, for example, the Republican Party of South Carolina nominated an Indian-American woman for governor. Nikki Haley, 38, defeated a perfectly acceptable white male in the South Carolina establishment mold who had voted for the 2008 bank bailout urged by his president, George W. Bush. Republicans also tapped Tim Scott, a young African American legislator, for a congressional nomination over rival Paul Thurmond, son of the legendary Strom Thurmond, the governor and senator and onetime segregationist presidential candidate.
Scott is now favored in November (over another African American nominated by the Democrats) and would become the first black Republican in Congress in eight years (and only the fourth since the 1800s). And this in a 70-percent white district that includes Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.
Also unusual was the wave that washed away Rep. Bob Inglis in South Carolina's GOP. Inglis, a veteran of the 1994 Newt Gingrich uprising that captured the House, was ousted in a runoff landslide largely because of the bailout vote and his own criticism of hardline conservatives.
And that's not even to mention the unusual results earlier this month on the Democratic side of the South Carolina ledger. No one yet has figured out how Alvin M. Greene, an unemployed former Marine, found $10,000 for a filing fee and then won the party's Senate nomination without running for it.
Is it possible that anonymity and a non-campaign are the winning formula for some in 2010?
Probably not. While South Carolina dominated the media attention of the week, neighboring North Carolina held a runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination and gave it to another woman, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who has been a statewide elected official for a decade. The politicking here was seen on the part of state and national party satraps who thought former Army prosecutor Cal Cunningham better fit the profile of a statewide winner. They backed his campaign, but the voters stuck with Marshall.
In both the Haley and Marshall nominations, we saw again a reaction against the presumptive gender effect. In Haley's case, there was also a rejection of flimsy last-minute attacks on her marital fidelity. We saw something of this rally-'round effect earlier this spring in Arkansas, where incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln held off the challenge of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a similar primary-runoff dynamic.
All three contests were in the South, where women have always been regarded as less likely to win primaries or November elections. Again, the pushback that matters is against politics as usual.
One thing is clear: It is no help to be famous. One state after another has turned against its best known politicians this year. Especially when they are famous mostly for moves seen as politicking, or manuevering too blatantly in service one's self-preservation.
Here the clearest symbol remains lame duck Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties last year fearing defeat in the 2010 Republican primary only to meet defeat in the Democratic primary instead. Specter made few bones about his rationale. And while the move won him new friends in the White House and the Senate majority cloakroom, even the embrace of this new entourage emphasized the politicking aspect of it all.
Not a good sail to hoist in the crosswinds of 2010.
Something very similar happened to Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, who began the cycle as a Blue Dog Democrat, switched to the GOP to improve his chances of surviving 2010 and promptly lost the Republican primary. On the same day in the same state, rising Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, an African American, lost his party's nomination for governor after programming his campaign to appeal to white voters (and taking his own voting base for granted).
Few tears may be shed for most of these victims of the karma of 2010. But consider too the unusual behavior of incumbent-friendly Utah.
Submitted for your approval, the Twilight Zone case of Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican stalwart whose father had been in the Senate and whose own conservative credentials were considered impeccable — at least in Washington. In turns out the standards are not the same in Utah, especially those rural reaches from whence came many delegates to a party convention that chose the names for this week's Utah GOP primary ballot. They refused to include Bennett's among them.
In Utah, Bennett's solid party record was suspect largely for two reasons. He had voted for the Bush bank bailout and he had been known to talk to Democrats about changing the health care system. Even though Bennett was anything but a collaborator on the bill that became known as Obamacare, hardcore opponents of that legislation did not hold him harmless for its passage. "You should have tried harder," they said.
In the end, Utah's primary was won by the Tea Party favorite Mike Lee over Tim Bridgewater, the businessman backed by Bennett, completing the incumbent's fall from grace.
In all of dysfunctional Washington, the most egregious unit may well be the Senate. But was Bob Bennett really the problem in that chamber? Or did he go down because he was trying too sincerely to be part of the solution, while others around him resisted all attempts at solution?
Rebellions against politics as usual have value, both in history and in the present. But all too often, such movements wind up wounding the unoffending while leaving the worst of the politickers in charge — and stronger than ever.