The Right Opinion

Incumbents Forever

By Jeff Jacoby · Nov. 19, 2012

As a candidate for lieutenant governor in 1982, John Kerry assured the voters of Massachusetts that he wasn't seeking the position as a mere “stepping-stone” to higher office. But just one year into his four-year term, he announced his candidacy for the US Senate seat that Paul Tsongas was vacating because of illness.

Few people held Kerry's broken commitment against him. In part that was because nobody had believed it in the first place (all candidates for lieutenant governor seek the position as a stepping-stone). But it was also because everyone knew what Kerry knew: If he passed up the chance to run for the position Tsongas was relinquishing, it might be years before it opened up again. So Kerry jumped into the Senate race and won. Sure enough, the seat has been occupied ever since.

For nearly 28 years Kerry has been a senator, and in all that time no Massachusetts Democrat has ever seriously challenged him in a primary. (He faced token opposition from a little-known Gloucester lawyer in 2008). Yet once speculation began that President Obama might name Kerry to a Cabinet post, three Democratic congressmen – Edward Markey, Michael Capuano, and Stephen Lynch – quickly let it be known that they were interested in taking his place, raising the likelihood of a knock-down primary.

A Senate bid by any of them would undoubtedly trigger in turn a lively primary fight for the House seat (or seats) being vacated. Otherwise, none is likely to face more than weak opposition for his party's renomination – especially not from incumbents lower down on the food chain, hoping someday to move up. The last time a member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation lost a primary battle was 20 years ago, when Marty Meehan of Lowell ousted Concord's Chet Atkins. Before that it hadn't happened since 1970.

What's true of congressional incumbents is just as true of the mayoral variety.

A slew of Boston Democrats is reportedly poised to run for the city's top job next year – but only if five-term incumbent Thomas Menino bows out. The fact that the mayor suffers from multiple ailments, that he is now hospitalized “indefinitely,” that he hasn't set foot in City Hall for over a month – none of that changes political reality: As long as he chooses to be mayor of Boston, the job is his to keep.

When former Mayor Ray Flynn resigned to become US ambassador to the Vatican in 1993, a vigorous free-for-all to choose his successor featured some of the most able figures in Boston life. That was a healthy, competitive contest. There won't be another one like it until Menino departs. Until then, most mayoral hopefuls will simply bide their time. Menino will go through the motions of running for re-election, brushing past a quadrennial opponent that everyone knows doesn't have a chance. Give a Boston mayor the boot? Voters haven't done it since they expelled James Michael Curley, a convicted felon, in 1949.

Ours isn't the only part of the country where incumbency-worship runs deep. West Virginia sent Robert Byrd to the US Senate for 51 years, and Daniel Inouye has represented Hawaii in Congress since it became a state in 1959. Charleston, S.C., has had the same mayor since 1975. No matter how unpopular Congress is said to be, more than 90 percent of House members seeking re-election generally keep their seats; in that respect Nov. 6 was absolutely typical.

Yet American politicians didn't always assume that incumbency was meant to be for life. Most of Kerry's Senate predecessors served one or two terms and moved on; the endless reigns of senators like Ted Kennedy (46 years) and Henry Cabot Lodge (31 years) were historical anomalies. Yes, there is always the possibility of electing someone so exceptional that his talents and experience make him irreplaceable. But the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Far better for officials to come and go, serving a spell in government, then heading back to real life.

“Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people,” Rhode Island's Roger Sherman argued during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”

George Washington could have been president for life, but he voluntarily stepped down after two terms. He could be trusted with power precisely because he could let it go. Politicians today can't bear the thought of giving up the power with which we cloak them. And we, to our discredit, are rarely prepared to take it away.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).

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7 Comments

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

In your next to last par. Rhode Island boycotted the constitutional convention, because they preferred the Articles of Confederation. Rhode Island was collecting tolls on its roads, for horse buggies, out of state.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 8:49 AM

billy396 in ohio said:

Your assumption that there is always the possibility of electing someone so exceptional that his talents and experience make him irreplaceable is false. Their should be fairly short term limits on ALL political positions. Anything otherwise is folly, as is demonstrated every day by our completely out of control and out of touch government. Two terms in ANY position is enough. These career politicians have nearly destroyed this Constitutional Republic and, due to the worst President to ever disgrace our White House, this country may never recover. Kerry, Kennedy and Inouye are perfect examples. Sherrod Brown of Ohio was recently reelected to the Senate and the one and ONLY reason was because he has steered large sums of money to his state for various causes. There should be more thought put into the process than just automatically assuming that more money from Washington is the best of all possible outcomes, as shown by Brown, who has been the most liberal senator in office since Obozo left for a "higher" calling, namely the destruction of our Republic. Communism or Nationalist Socialism is NOT a valid option, yet most of our citizens are so disconnected from reality that the majority of them MAY have voted for Obozo, although with our flawed electoral system, we'll never know.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 9:35 AM

Stephen in NH said:

Pay for the Congress should be equal to the median wage of the average american worker. They should choose their medical, dental, and retirement plans from the same plans offered to the general public. Sadly, none of this will ever come to fruition. Most people still believe there's some law that requires them to hand over a large portion of their paycheck to the government.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:45 AM

Ken in CT in CT said:

Roger Sherman was from CT, not RI, but his views are still valid.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Fr. Bill Loring in Danbury, CT said:

Roger Sherman from Rhode Island? RI refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Sherman was there, but from Connecticut.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 12:47 PM

Steve in Georgia said:

Incumbency is THE major problem for so-called American self government. It's NOT a coincidence that most D.C. politicians leave office much, much wealthier than when they entered. First, it should NOT be viewed as a career and thus, no pension. Pay should be token after paying a stipend for lodging/transportation in/around D.C. Benefits should be standard gov issue, civil service equivalent -- payroll deducted. They should all depend on Social Security and Medicare, which would give them an incentive to fix those ponzi schemes --- if they weren't already wealthy when they gained office.

Even term limits, if they could be passed, on Congressional service (say 12 years total Senate and House) would not preclude service in the executive branch (bureaucracies, agencies, foreign sevice, etc.) through appointments and patronage.

The other major issue is the strangle hold the major parties hold on the ballots in all states. Even though I would LOVE to vote against every incumbent, the other party frequently puts up a "choice" that is simply just as miserable as the incumbent if not worse.

We need turnover in the compost pile!! Vote out every incumbent every time! Folks who don't think that way are evidently "bought" by some perk or pork they think their incumbent can secure for them. So, we all send our representatives to out-steal the reps of our sister states.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 3:43 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Congress should get merit pay; for every million dollars that the deficit is reduced, Congress gets a 2% increase in salary. For every million dollar increase in FED DEBT, congress loses 4% of their salary. Case settled---No need for term limits, folks! Every member of Congress{535} must abide by laws and statutes on the books/computers--Enjoy your PPACA2010-rats!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 6:34 AM