If there is one grand tradition of American politics, it’s armchair quarterbacking, the second-guessing that comes with every election and decision made. Another grand tradition is wondering how certain politicians seem to get re-elected despite errors of bombast, action or inaction. Many Americans, liberal and conservative alike, can’t seem to reconcile how certain people manage to hang onto their seats once in office. Here is a look at some of the reasons why some politicians, both alive and deceased, managed to hang on for so long, despite being controversial and suffering from a massive case of “foot in mouth disease.”
They are connected
Mike Bilirakis was one of Florida’s longest-serving politicians for a simple reason; he was connected out the wazoo in his district. Having close ties to the well-heeled donors of North Pinellas and Southwest Pasco Counties in Florida kept his campaign coffers full, his voter turnout high, and his opponents pulling their hair out figuring out how to unseat him. Amazingly, he was so successful his own son, Gus, essentially inherited his seat and now enjoys the same connections.
They know all politics are local
As much as conservatives and liberals hate to admit it, getting to the national stage requires, almost without exception, the time-honored tradition of kissing babies and shaking hands. This applies to both the campaign trail and the day-to-day job. It also means that in order to keep your job, you need to be able to prove to your constituents that you can do what others can’t. One great example is the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA) who, despite scandals and bombastic statements, managed to win election after election for one simple reason: his office got the local job done. The classic story about Kennedy is that when potholes weren’t fixed or traffic lights maintained, one call to Frank’s office resulted in next-day repairs. Being in office a long time doesn’t just mean getting $1000 steak dinners from donors; it means having the pull to make one call to the Mayor’s office about why Johnny’s school doesn’t have the right textbooks and, the very next day, those textbooks magically appearing.
They are great salespeople
Any longtime politician knows that to stay in office, you have to sell. It may sound distasteful, but staying in office means earning a Doctorate in Schmooze, and the best politicians out there know how to do it without it looking as such. The late Robert Byrd (D-WV) remains a standard for wheeling and dealing; even up to his 2010 death, this old West Virginia salt was able to patch together coalition after coalition, and still never fails to surprise when it comes to sticking his foot in his mouth. Still, he sold his vision to his own state, and they appear to have loved it, because he died in office.
They adapt to the times
One of the reasons the Daley family of Chicago managed to keep their family machine running for so long is they were able to adapt. No politician will keep their job if they aren’t willing to change and cater to their electorate. The Lindsey Democrats in New York City experienced this in the 1970s, the Pork Chop Gang in Florida dealt with this in the 1980s, and Congressional Democrats felt this sting in the 1990s. But the Daleys kept right on trucking and when Richard finally saw his time was up, he stepped aside…after 22 years.
They know how to get out their vote
It doesn’t matter how much money you have – if you can’t get your supporters to the ballot box, you won’t last. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is a prime example of getting it done. She may be offensive, and may sound like someone with a thousand axes to grind against two thousand crusades, but Boxer consistently gets her supporters to the ballot box. More important is the fact that Boxer isn’t afraid to make statements which, regardless of how outlandish they may be, are enough to get voters off their seats to the polls.
They champion the right causes
Not all politicians are looking to make a national splash but, when they take on a pet cause, oftentimes that’s exactly what they do. Nancy Pelosi is prime example of this. The longtime San Francisco Democrat has been a tireless champion of gay rights, universal health care, and social issues. In her district, this means Pelosi struck California gold, winning election after election in near landslides. She may grate the teeth of Republicans everywhere (and even some conservative Democrats), but nobody can deny that Pelosi has found that magic formula for success and keeps pulling rabbits out of her political hat.
Their ideology fits the electorate
Strom Thurmond did what was rare nationally but quite common in the South; he flipped parties and stayed in office. While a Southern Democrat, Thurmond railed against the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action and desegregation, claiming it was a matter of States Rights. When South Carolina started to shift from blue to red in the 1950s and 60s, Thurmond jumped onto the bandwagon, and road it to chair of some of the most powerful committees in Congress. Today, this would be considering waffling, unless the electorate one shifts to is the majority…then it’s just a matter of one “getting their head right.”
No term limits
One of the major reasons many politicians hold long terms and keep getting elected is an absence of term-limits for their particular office. While the 22nd Amendment limits a President to two terms in office (enacted to prevent a repeat of FDR’s record run), congressional term limits have been successfully enacted only by the states. A national movement to limit congressional terms has never truly materialized and with good reason – (1) it’s hard for politicians to have long-term careers when the law says they can’t and (2) they aren’t going to shoot their own feet off.