At the beginning of the month, I wrote a post here about how popularity does not necessarily translate into influence. In that post, I looked at the propensity of various blogs to mistake their popularity – as measured by number of readers, links, and comments – with actual political influence. It’s a mistake, and is the cause of a lot of anger when the reality hits that they don’t have the influence they thought they did. There’s another mistake the blogs make when it comes to popularity. They mistake a politician’s popularity with their power. The two are not necessarily related.
I realized this when I saw some comments on various blogs along the lines of “If Hillary were still in the Senate, she would have moved this legislation forward.” Reality? No, she wouldn’t have been able to do that. She was popular, but she wasn’t powerful. Yes, she had the ability to raise a lot of money, and was a good spokeswoman for the party. She was even popular with Republicans, in that she made a convenient, highly visible target that they could use to raise funds for themselves. The reality was that she was a junior Senator, and her ability to write and push through major (or even minor) legislation was minimal.
If there’s one thing that has been a constant irritant is the way people mistake popularity for influence or actual power. Alan Grayson may be wildly popular with the people on progressive blogs, but in terms of actual “I can get things done” he’s a non-entity. Steve King may be wildly popular with conservative blogs, but he’s a junior member and his actual record of accomplishment is not that impressive. If they say something about starting a major piece of legislation, I’m not going to bet much money on its chances. On the other hand, if John Conyers, John Dingell, Bill Young, or Don Young say they’re starting on major legislation, I’m going to take it to take it seriously. They may not be popular, but in terms of getting things through Congress, they’re far more effective and powerful.
The fact is that in both chambers, the overriding principle for both parties is “Seniority counts.” It’s even more so in the Senate than the House, but the principle still holds. It’s often the junior members who are “popular” because they will make statements that resonate with a particular segment of the population. It’s a mistake to think that their ability to tell you what you want to hear means that what you’re after is going to be actual legislation. Instead, you have to look at what actually matters. How long have they been in office? What committees do they sit on? What position do they hold on those committees? Where do they stand in their Party conference? Those are the real keys to getting things done in Congress. You may not like it, you may wish it were different, but it doesn’t change what is. If you’re believing that something is going to happen, or could have happened, just because someone who is popular might be for it, you’re going to be disappointed. Sometimes popular does mean powerful – but never mistake one for the other.