I was talking to a real journalist last night, and not surprisingly the subject of the Burner-Reichert race came up. Also not surprisingly, the journalist raised the question of whether Darcy Burner had done enough over the past two years to address concerns about her perceived lack of relevant experience.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a member of the local media raise this question, and it immediately got my hackles up. Campaigns tend to focus on the job performance of the incumbent, not the challenger, and with good reason: to criticize the challenger for lacking the relevant experience of the incumbent would be an automatic argument for incumbency.
To wage a successful campaign a challenger must typically do two things: A) raise substantial doubts about the job performance and/or character of the incumbent; and B) present themselves as an acceptable alternative who voters might reasonably give a chance in the job. And generally, in that order.
But that’s not how this race has been covered thus far. The media narrative, that Burner must somehow match Dave Reichert’s legislative experience to qualify for the job, is a narrative that comes straight from the Reichert campaign, and one that she cannot possibly win, as it can be argued that nothing prepares one for Congress like on the job experience. It is a narrative that runs counter to the intent of the founders, who envisioned a citizen legislature, and counter to the mood of a public grown weary (and wary) of professional politicians. It is a narrative that defaults to the incumbent.
But elected office has never been a prerequisite for holding elected office; it was never an issue during Mike McGavick’s run for the US Senate, and it hasn’t seemed to hamper Gov. Schwarzenegger in California. Indeed, representing one’s fellow citizens in Congress is supposed to be an act of public service, not a reward for it.
If I sound a bit defensive it is because I am, for Darcy Burner is clearly being held to an unfair standard. Capitol Hill is filled with Representatives and Senators who never held lower office before first being elected (or appointed) to Congress. Ironically, the best example I can think of to support the notion that legislators should work their way to the top before acceding to Congress is Reichert himself, who had zero legislative experience before winning his current office, and whose track record there shows it.
The primary question before voters is not what Burner has managed to accomplish since losing her race in 2006, but what Reichert has managed to accomplish since winning. Which brings us to the video clip at the top of this post, in which Rep. Jay Inslee cites Burner’s Responsible Plan while debating Iraq War funding on the floor of House.
Inslee describes Burner as a “citizen,” and that’s all she is, and yet through sheer grit and determination she has managed to influence the public debate on Iraq, while Reichert, with all the powers of office at his disposal, has done nothing but parrot the platitudes of the Bush administration. Where is Reichert’s plan? Where is his leadership on this issue or other pressing issues? What has he done during his four years in office other than issue an endless stream of press releases and glossy franked mail pieces?
When critics ask what Burner has done these past two years to prepare herself for office, voters should ask what Reichert has done these past two years with it? And local journalists, however well meaning, should start asking the same question.