Adrian Fenty, anti-incumbent fervor, and the 'pundit delusion'
Venerable Financial Times reporter Jurek Martin weighed in Friday on the D.C. mayoral race. His column argues that while Adrian Fenty might be in the same trouble as other incumbents across the country, he's in trouble for unique reasons.
"This is a city where President Barack Obama remains popular, local Republicans can be counted on the fingers of one hand and the Tea Party could not borrow a spoonful of sugar," he writes. "In one sense, it is conforming to national type, in that its most important incumbent, the mayor, appears in trouble. But the reasons are entirely personal and local, which makes for an interesting, and refreshing, change."
But what if Fenty's troubles actually are the same as everyone else's?
In a conversation last week, one Wilson Building wag brought up Paul Krugman's New York Times column of last Sunday. It's about the "pundit delusion," which Krugman defines as "the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting -- who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback -- actually matters."
Instead: "What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid." And Krugman says a sluggish economy that refuses to add jobs is why Obama's stuck in the political mud right now.
Cue some soul-searching: As much as I may shudder to say it, and shudder I do, I suppose I'm a pundit. I swim in a shallow ocean of elected officials, staffers, flacks, bureaucrats, consultants, activists, commissioners, advocates, and fellow reporters, all of whom inhabit the small world where District of Columbia politics is daily life.
And the consensus of that Wilson Building chattering class is that Fenty's tumbling poll numbers, not to mention the booing and the hissing and all his other problems, are the result of his grating, arrogant personal style. That perception is no doubt fed by "the stuff of daily political reporting."
But what if Fenty's troubles are best explained in other ways?
Like the fact that city unemployment stands at levels not seen since the early 1980s. Last time we saw a spike even approaching this magnitude, Sharon Pratt got voted into office. It kept rising, and we all know what happened next.
And consider what leaders of the Washington Interfaith Network wrote in a Post op-ed this weekend: "Over and over we have heard from unemployed and underemployed residents who need and want to work. We have heard from people who have applied for job after job and been turned away. We have heard from people who have gone through training program after training program, only to find no job at the end of all the training." Meanwhile, Fenty is not going to great lengths to be known as a jobs-oriented mayor. He's not been shy in telling voters that his No. 1 focus has been a public education overhaul -- not employment.
That said, I'm not convinced that Fenty's problem is the economy, stupid. Not entirely, anyway.
Part of it is that D.C. is just too small of a place -- that things like handshakes and door-knocking and perception make a real difference in a way they can't for a president or a congressman. (See Nikita Stewart's fabulous story on Ward 4 earlier this month for evidence of how personal interactions can make all the difference.) The bigger part of it is that polls indicate that D.C. residents, by and large, feel the city's on the right track. But Fenty's approval levels don't correspond.
Then again, perhaps I'm just another deluded pundit.
Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post
July 26, 2010; 1:27 PM ET
Categories: Adrian Fenty , DCision 2010 , The District
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