New political rules: Ideology is out, trust is in 

Is there a flavor to this year's anti-incumbency wave, or is it just about hating Washington?

Right now, both parties are purging themselves of ideological infidels.

This week's primaries were the best evidence yet that purity is preferable to pragmatism in 2010.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats took pleasure in sinking Arlen Specter, despite the fact that his party switch enabled President Obama to enact the Democrats' much sought-after national health program. For both parties, it seems that to know Specter is to loathe him.

In Kentucky, another party switcher, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, got handed his coonskin cap. Libertarian Republican Rand Paul thumped Grayson, who had positioned himself as a partner with the state's senior senator, Mitch McConnell, in battling the Obama agenda.

Down in Arkansas, special interest groups gang tackled moderate Sen. Blanche Lincoln from the left. Big labor, environmental groups, and health care activists poured millions into the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and succeeded in forcing Lincoln into a punishing three-week runoff campaign against Halter. Another test of ideological purity.

A year ago, Specter was switching, Grayson was promising to work with Obama and Lincoln was heralding her membership in a "mod squad" of centrist senators. The assumption was that the new political climate in America would be all about bipartisanship and living in the new political order created by Obama's victory.

As it turns out, not even Obama could pull off the post-partisan shuffle. He ditched the middle -- and the independent voters he wooed so assiduously in 2008 -- and got hip to base politics early on.

Pity the poor suckers who thought it was all for real.

Charlie Crist, who literally embraced Obama, was held up as the vanguard of the new post-partisan political order.

Crist was run out of the Republican Senate primary by conservative Marco Rubio and is now sinking like a sickly manatee in his independent Senate bid. He may yet turn things around, but right now it looks like Crist is a candidate without a base.

The imaginary electorate that Crist believed was crying out for a muddled middle did not materialize.

In California, the Republican primary where former eBay Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman watched a 40-point lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner evaporate after she spoke out against Arizona's illegal immigration crackdown. She's also had to answer some unhappy questions about her tenure on the board of Goldman Sachs and her support for Democratic candidates in the past.

The winner will face Democrat Jerry Brown, who was one of the most liberal governors in state history in what promises to be a battle of the bases.

But it will be Pennsylvania where we will see the political landscape in clearest relief.

Sestak won by leading a crusade of liberals who wanted to purge the party of a false prophet. That energy combined with a sense that Specter had stayed too long took Sestak to a big win.

It was an awful lot like the crusade that Republican Pat Toomey had begun with a narrow loss to Specter in 2004. Toomey's purity push and Specter's mustiness had made Toomey a prohibitive favorite in Republican primary polls this year, prompting Specter to jump left.

In prospect is a head-to-head fight between two men who have both represented eastern Pennsylvania congressional districts, who are largely unknown to the rest of the state and who have both fought bitter primary battles with Arlen Specter.

So how will the clash between ideological purists with play out in a state that has been known for both its Reagan Democrats and Obama Republicans? With no incumbent to attack, it's going to be tricky.

One of the reasons people like ideological purity is that it implies consistency and, by extension, trustworthiness. The problem with the muddled middle is that voters can't be sure whose interests are being served when politicians jump back and forth.

There are a few -- Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley comes to mind -- who are so trusted that occasional deviations don't rattle voters. But as Grassley's colleague from Nebraska, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, found out when he was wheeling and dealing his way through Obamacare negotiations, such trust is rare.

The political crisis that threatens America's governing class is not one of ideology as much as trust. The gulf between Obama's talk and actions has deepened the distrust that has been growing for so long.

Whether Toomey or Sestak wins this fall will likely depend on which of the two candidates strikes voters as the most authentic.

Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at cstirewalt@washingtonexaminer.com.

About The Author

Chris Stirewalt

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Washington Examiner Political Editor Chris Stirewalt, who coordinates political coverage for the newspaper and ExaminerPolitics.com in addition to writing a twice-weekly column and
regular blog posts.

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