According to news accounts, the man had tears in his eyes when he talked of coming in third in the voting. Merely reading about it makes one feel a little embarrassed for him. He is, after all, almost 77 years old, so he must have experienced misfortunes far worse than this. How many friends and loved ones must he have seen lowered into the cold ground? How many of his young dreams must have gone to dust? How many disappointments and failures must he have endured?
This was just one lousy election. So come on, man, you think, suck it up. Steal from the legendary political prankster Dick Tuck and say, “The people have spoken . . . the bastards.” Or, if you want something more urbane, quote Adlai Stevenson, quoting Abraham Lincoln. “It hurts too much to laugh but I’m too old to cry.”
Instead, after failing to win his party’s nomination, Senator Robert Bennett of Utah said pitifully that he just might try to hold on to his seat in the Senate by running a write-in campaign. He would be running for a fourth term. When he first ran, he promised that he would serve only two.
That’s how much he wants it.
Bennett says now that he wouldn’t have voted any differently on some key legislation even if he had known that those votes would eventually cost him the job he craves so . . . well, so cravenly. Which is about as credible as that promise to serve only two terms.
Bennett wasn’t the only one who reacted emotionally. The effrontery of the delegates to the Utah Republican convention was greeted with shock and indignation by the Washington elite. “A damn outrage,” the New York Times’s David Brooks called it.
The man, according to this line of thought, was a good senator. Got along with people “across the aisle.” He was, as they say, “someone who knows the institution.” Which comes as no big surprise since his father was a four-term senator before him. The media postmortem on Bennett’s defeat put the blame on the Tea Party movement, an increasingly anti-incumbent mood, and a generalized hostility to Washington. And if true . . . well, there may be reason for hope.
But there is a variation on the anti-Washington theme that might be worth exploring. Maybe voters wanted Bennett out because he wanted to be in so much. Who knows, those voters may have wondered, what sort of things someone who wants the job that badly might do to hold on to it? Desperation like that is not merely undignified; it can also be dangerous.
Bennett isn’t, of course, the only one. Arlen Specter tried feverishly to remain a senator. Something he has been for so long now that you’d think he’d have grown bored with it and be ready to try something else, or just kick back and play with the grandchildren.
Specter never served out of allegiance to any particular cause or in order to advance any ideological line or to bolster the fortunes of any political party. He was always in it for Arlen. He was a Republican—sort of—until it began to look like he might have the same kind of troubles with his base that Bennett encountered. Then he bravely ditched the Republicans and went over to the Democrats. When he made the switch, Specter didn’t bother to come up with any grand justification. Didn’t try to strike a Road to Damascus chord. He simply said what everyone already knew; that he’d done it in order to keep his job.
Specter had spent half a lifetime as a Republican so even he must have had some friends in the party. So much the worse for them. Specter was clinging so desperately to that Senate seat that he left fingernail shards in the mahogany.
It didn’t work, though. The voters in the Democratic primary last week took a pass on Arlen, in spite of his unremitting reminders of how much he’d done for them. In his concession speech, he said it had been a privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania, and he almost sounded like he meant it.
But Specter is not the worst of the present crop. That distinction falls to Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida who would like to be a U.S. senator. Crist did everything but swear on a stack of Bibles that he would not leave the Republican party and run as an independent. But he was behind in the polls and did not have the luxury of waiting to see if he’d lose his party’s primary. By then, it would be too late.
With time running out, Crist vetoed an education bill that had the backing of his party but was anathema to the teachers’ union. The veto bought him a brand-new and very powerful constituency. That done, Crist announced he would be running as an independent. Asked if he would return contributions of those who believed, when they wrote the checks, that they were supporting a Republican, Crist said, “Probably.”
Astonishingly, he changed his mind. It was, no doubt, a matter of high principle. He needed the money because he really wants the job.
Wants it, in fact, far too much to be trusted with it. A desperate pol is a dangerous pol. Which is something more and more voters who live out in the wastelands beyond the Potomac understand.
But in Washington, where there is no such thing as too much ambition, they’re bewildered.
Geoffrey Norman is a writer living in Vermont.