Politics is a winner-take-all sport. There is no prize for second place. There is no prize for securing a party nomination. One person gains elective office; everyone else has to settle for talking head gigs on Fox News and MSNBC opinion shows.

This brings me to the Kentucky Senate primaries held Tuesday. The media noise is all about Rand Paul’s trouncing of Trey Grayson, 206,000 to 124,000. And deservedly so: a political novice beating the Senate minority leader’s hand-picked candidate by a 5:3 margin is quite an achievement, and quite a testament to the force that the Tea Party brought to bear on the primary.

Meanwhile, Jack Conway eeked out a quiet victory in the Democratic primary for the same Senate seat, beating Daniel Mongiardo by 227,000 to 221,000.

But, again, nominations are nothing but preludes to elections. Neither Rand nor Conway has his hand on a Bible yet. The important question to be asked this Wednesday is whether Rand, or the Tea Party, has a strategy for defeating Conway. After all, the runner-up on the Democratic side had more primary votes than Rand.

Consider this: Comparing primary voting results, Conway starts with a 20,000 vote lead over Rand. Let’s give Rand the benefit of the doubt, and suppose in November he retains every vote cast yesterday for his Republican opponents. That would mean Rand has to convince a whopping 42% of the people who voted yesterday for Mongiardo and the other Democatic candidates to switch to him. That is a monumental undertaking.

It doesn’t take a political genius to understand that Rand was nominated by dominating the rightward end of the political spectrum. He needs to find hundreds of thousands of votes beyond that narrow base. What message will he bring to the November campaign to accomplish that?

Primary results: http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/senate/kentucky


Let’s imagine the most improbably successful outcome imagineable for the tea party movement. Suppose they actually managed to obtain a majority in Congress, or at least to unseat the Democratic majority in favor of Republicans. What happens when, two years later, voters see that spending has increased again, and federal debt has continued to rocket upward? To paraphrase Mr. Grayson from Kentucky, what happens when people learn that honking horns does not solve traffic? The Tea Party movement seems to be based on the notions that government spending can be controlled without shrinking popular programs, and that government debt can be curtailed without increasing taxes. Both are absurd fantasies. So is the idea that Republicans have any intention of reducing spending or reducing federal debt. What happens when that lesson is learned?

Let me start with a clear statement of the premise of this post: the political behavior of both politicians and we the people has become downright abysmal, and it threatens our future.

Start with the politicians. We have members of Congress who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that President Obama is constitutionally qualified to be president. Literally cannot get the words to come out of their mouths. Others who cannot bring themselves to rebuke Rep. Wilson for his unambiguous violation of the House code of conduct. Still others who cannot bring themselves to rebuke Rep. Grayson for his characterization of Republican healthcare plans as, “don’t get sick” – and if you do, “die quickly.” We have Sarah Palin out there fanning the “death panels” flames. We have Rep. Franks declaring that our president is “an enemy of humanity” who has “no place in any station of government.”

Why is this? This is done because it sells tickets, i.e., it generates political support and votes. It’s good for business among the political set. Does anyone of serious mind actually doubt the president’s constitutional qualifications?  Or that that Wilson, Grayson, Palin or Frank were out of line? Have you ever heard anyone express support for these politicians’ actions who isn’t also ideologically aligned with them? You have not. Ideological blinders are an absolute prerequisite to seeing these any of these actions as justified, or intellectually honest, or in any way creditable.

And, that’s where we the people come in. We buy this stuff. We soak it up. We love it. If you are an obscure South Carolina or Florida congressman or a small state governor or whoever, this stuff works. It works politically. You get more donations. You get bigger tiny crowds at your appearances. You get more votes. In the end, you get re-elected.

Where does all of this lead us? To the state of affairs in Congress today. Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, is among the most disdained and reviled institutions in the land. Various polls show an overall approval rating of Congress in the mid twenties percent range. If you or I set out with boundless determination to ruin our reputations, it would take a miracle to earn the disgust of so many.

We are caught in an ever-worsening feedback loop. Politicians on the right disconnect further and further from reality, become more and more willing to abandon all reasonable standards of discourse — and are rewarded with money and votes from an increasingly marginalized right wing electorate. And in turn: Politicians on the left disconnect further and further from reality, become more and more willing to abandon all reasonable standards of discourse — and are rewarded with money and votes from the left wing electorate. (I omit “increasingly marginalized” for the left wing only because it is in the ascendancy now; five years ago, it would have been reversed, and it will reverse again.)

Here is why this matters. There are real issues to be confronted by our government. We live in times which require thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise leadership. But we punish those who are thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise. We are left with a big bunch of losers, play-acting at being “Congressmen” and “Congresswomen.” I cringe to think that this generation in Congress will be the ones to decide how to handle healthcare policy, or energy policy, or environmental policy, or economic policy, or fiscal policy, or any other important policy. Frankly, I would cringe equally whether it was Pelosi or Boehner with a 256 – 177 majority and the task of crafting the thoughtful, forward-thinking, fresh, creative and wise legislation these issues demand.

Just remember, though: it is not their fault. We voted for them. We sought out and got exactly the kind of rhetoric-filled, ideologically blinded Congress we wanted. Good luck with that, America.