Mary Landrieu and the Problem With Washington


Since 1997, Mary Landrieu has served as a Democratic Senator from Louisiana. That means she works in Washington, D.C., and maintains a home in the nation's capitol as well. That's now a potential liability. As a new ad targeting Landrieu unsubtly notes, she seems to have made Capitol Hill her primary residence.

American Crossroads: Landrieu for Washington from American Crossroads on Vimeo.

It's a brutal little spot, and if you're the sort of person who believes that clever TV ads can swing a tight race, then this is an ad that probably whispers "game-changer!" in your ear.

But what's the argument here? As Paul Waldman writes in The American Prospect, in response to the general charge against Landrieu, there's something a little bit strange about this line of attack, which implies that voters should reject Landrieu because she lives where they have repeatedly sent her to work. (She maintains joint ownership of a family home in New Orleans as well.) 

Now, maybe there's a case to be made that someone who has made a life elsewhere for the better part of two decades is not in tune with the interests of her potential constituents. But that's not really what the ad says. It just makes Landrieu out to be, well, a pretty good neighbor on Capitol Hill.

Which is why the bigger problem, I think, is that there's not a lot of substance to the ad. That's not to say there aren't reasons to disagree with Landrieu's policy positions: She supports reauthorization of the Ex-Im bank. She opposes efforts to end energy subsidies. She voted for Obamacare, despite its unpopularity in her state, and offered minimalist, gimmicky "fixes" when it crashed last year. Now she calls it "a solid law that needs improvement."

These are issues, and it's possible to craft ads that touch on some of them. Landrieu's town home on Capitol Hill, where she works, and her relationship to the neighborhood, seems like less of one.

That said, I wouldn't go as far as Waldman does in rejecting the entire genre of populist anti-Washington attacks. There is a problem with Washington. It's just that the problem isn't that longtime legislators live there, or own homes near their offices, or don't own a sufficient amount of property in their districts.

The problem is that Washington isn't, or at least shouldn't be, the core of what makes America great or important or interesting. It's a city of administrators and bureaucrats and rulemakers. Some are necessary. Many are not. But the making of the bureaucratic particulars shouldn't be confused with the country's purpose. Washington should be as central to American life as filing cabinets and basement storage systems are to one's home.

It's not that the various mechanisms and organizational schemes aren't important—they are, and often require considerable time and thought and effort to implement and maintain well—but ultimately they should exist to free people up to do other things, rather than live strictly in service of themselves.

But that's a broader problem with a culture and sensibility more than with any particular candidate, and it's harder to run ads against.