Think of those times in life when more attention is paid to the symptoms of a problem than to the problem itself. It happens when we deal with some medical issues. We have a fever; we take Tylenol to lower it. Our throat is sore or we have a cough; we take a lozenge.
It happens in business. Too many air travelers taking carry-on bags and packing the overhead bins is a symptom, not the problem. The real problem is that passengers don't trust the airlines to unload their bags in any kind of efficient manner (or to deliver them at all). Instead of solving the problem, airlines constantly address the symptom of too many or too large carry-ons.
Expect voters to keep backing candidates who don't fit the norm.
The same pattern is true in the commentary and analysis surrounding the recent elections involving tea party candidates. It happened when outsider Sharron Angle won a surprise victory in the Nevada Republican primary to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. And again most recently in Delaware's Republican primary this month, when a virtual unknown (Christine O'Donnell) won, even though many political professionals considered her a flawed candidate.
The phenomena of less-qualified, tarnished, flawed, or somewhat fringe candidates with tea party movement support beating very experienced establishment candidates is a symptom.
The underlying problem is that the vast majority of the people do not trust the federal government and Congress to understand and address the concerns of everyday Americans. Distrust of Congress is at a historic high (Gallup's latest polling has congressional approval at 18 percent positive, 77 percent negative). Disapproval appears even higher among Republican primary voters. The problem is that institutional trust is extremely low and needs to be restored. People need to believe that Congress and the federal government can be effective together.
President Obama's error in his first 18 months in office was a combination of two things: one, not rebuilding trust in the federal government's ability to solve problems before he presented various federal government solutions to America's problems; and two, passing controversial legislation in a very polarized fashion with little or no consensus from Republicans or independents, thus ensuring that a majority of the country was never going to accept or support the implementation of those policies.
So the election outcomes over the last several months, including the most recent Delaware results, have highlighted the problem we face in American politics today. The fact that fringe candidates are winning elections is not the cause of dysfunction in Washington -- it is the result of dysfunction in Washington.
Americans are angry and frustrated with the incompetence of the federal government. They don't like fiscal irresponsibility (massive budget deficits). They don't like the fact that government can't get the job done well (responses to the Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disasters). And they don't like it when neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress seem to get it -- when members appear to be more concerned with keeping and expanding their power than with tackling the very real problems facing the nation.
So, in Republican primary after Republican primary, voters are turning away from candidates with Washington experience toward novices who may not be considered "the best and the brightest." It is no wonder that Rep. Michael Castle lost in Delaware to O'Donnell when his major criticism of her was that she didn't have Washington experience. The new challengers would definitely respond, in the words of Brer Rabbit, "Don't throw me in the briar patch!"
These election results are the product of votes of passion. And like crimes of passion, they don't necessarily appear logical. Voters -- especially Republican primary voters -- are saying that they are sick and tired of how Washington does business, that they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore (to paraphrase Howard Beale in the movie Network). So they back what some analysts describe as "nutty" nominees who may lose the general election. The new breed of candidates isn't the issue; the problem is that Washington and the federal government are broken.
Until that underlying problem is fixed, expect voters to keep sending message after message in the form of candidates who don't fit the norm. After November, Obama and congressional leaders should first concentrate on restoring trust and then worry about specific policies.
This article appears in the Sep. 25, 2010, edition of National Journal.