Once upon a time there were two conservative leaders in Indiana. One was a solid movement conservative named John Ryan who once served as a member of the Postal Rates Commsission. The other better known Hoosier is the author and former editor of the Indianapolis News, M. Stanton Evans, who is pictured at right. Evans has written many books on conservative thought and was a former commentator for CBS Radio.
Nowhere does this law apply with stronger force than to career incumbents in Congress. Pretend that a Member of Congress starts out being loyal to his or her constituents in their home state. If Members rise in the ranks of party leadership, their definition of who their "constituents" are dramatically changes from voters in their home district to their new-found pals among lobbyists, incumbent colleagues, and media in Washington, DC.
The new friends lavish praise and love on them and pay for their campaigns so the folks back home are only a means to an end and the end is staying in Washington because it is a more exciting place than where the Member of Congress was born and raised. The goal of the career incumbent is no longer to serve the folks back home but only to keep them just happy enough to prevent being booted out of office in a primary or general election.
Most career incumbents become very skilled at fooling their original constituents back home and are helped along in their charade by the campaign money they get from their new best friends forever in DC.
This creeping incumbent disease does not always happen to every Member of Congress at the same speed, but the more years an incumbent serves, the stronger the pull of loyalty to the new friends in DC becomes. It is a very rare career incumbent who can completely escape this disease for very long. Among those who do escape the worst effects of Potomac Fever are some with strong family ties and a happy life back home which therfore does not leave them dependent on the narcotic of illusory Washington power.
But the career incumbent who was not a success in life before politics is often the most vulnerable to Potomac Fever and just staying in Washington with a title becomes the be-all and end-all of their sad little lives. Even if they are defeated, they continue to live in the DC region and print up business cards tht say former Congressman to find any way to capitalize on their contacts to lobby former colleagues in Congress. That is the only way they can earn a living having no useful business skills apart from politics.
The hardest thing to evaluate in any job interview is the real personality of the job applicant or first-time candidate in the case of a political campaign. That is why vetting candidates in a primary is so crucial but it is often the most overlooked part of the electoral process. As a state legislative candidate one time I rang the doorbell of a neighbor to ask for her vote in the primary. She has no idea what I was talking about and simply said, "Well whoever the party nominates if fine with me and I am sure that person will be good in the fall."
A comment like that helps to dramatize how big the educational challenge is in any campaign. If a voter does not realize that they have the most influence in a primary, much more so than in a general, then those few who do bother to vote in a primary have that much more disproportionate power. That can be a good or a bad thing.
Creeping career incumbent disease (Potomac Fever) is the reason we always need to have primary challenges to party favorites. A primary challenge is the only way to keep them honest.
We smile at the old story about a woman in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire who refused to come to the early voting at midnight when news media and local officials begged her to so they could close the polls and tally for the day and be the first town in the nation to report results. The old woman said, "I am sorry, but I never vote because it only encourages them."
I am not positive that there wasn't a grain of wise insight that the old woman had that many idealists do not. But I do know this, it takes a very stong personality and powerful idealism to resist Potomac Fever. The only treatment for the fever that has proven effective is the threat of a primary challenge that party regulars fear and lovers of liberty celebrate.