When Incumbency Fails: The Senate Career of Mark Andrews.
Fenno has always been something of a wonder in political science circles. He wins praise from other political scientists for his scrupulous methods and attention to theoretically important questions but his books also receive accolades from practitioners for their descriptions of politics and politicians as more than abstractions or numerical aggregates. Few people can produce political analyses that both sparkle with the brilliance of first-class scholarly investigation and resonate with the solid thunk of the real world the way Fenno can.
When Incumbency Fails is an engrossing political biography of North Dakota Republican Mark Andrews, an eight-term House member who won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1980 and lost it to Democrat Kent Conrad in 1986. (That seat, by the way, is now open due to Conrad's decision to keep his promise to voters to retire after one term if the deficit was still raging out of control.) But Conrad gets little of Fermo's attention, because what really concerns him is how Andrews adjusted--or, more accurately, failed to adjust--to the job of U.S. senator.
Roughly one third of the Senate at any given time consists of former members of the House. Movement from the House to the Senate has been the normal progression for the ambitious legislator in recent decades. Some pols desire the enormous political opportunity the Senate offers--the chance to occupy one of 100 bully pulpits from which to stake out positions on issues of national concern. Like House alumni AI Gore and Phil Gramm, they understand immediately the potential for agendasetting and policy leadership the Senate offers. Others--according to Fenno, Mark Andrews was one of them--look upon the job of senator as a slightly sublimated version of House member.
For the half dozen or so House members who successfully make the leap to the Senate each election year, When Incumbency Fails is required reading. It tells the person who migrates from the south side of the Capitol to the north that voters essentially discount constituent casework and pork barreling; they assume it will be done. A senator whose legislative efforts are limited to introducing amendments to fund water diversion projects will end up in trouble. What Fenno tells us, based on his first-hand observation of Andrews, is that a Senate career built merely on porkbarreling may lead constituents to take pork for granted or, even worse, to ask that most devastating of all political questions: What have you done for me lately?
What distinguishes this work (and everything Fenno has written since his 1978 tour de force, Homestyle) is sensitivity to the interaction between what a member of Congress does in Washington and what he does back in his district or state. He says to the senators, Your reputation as an effective deal-maker in Washington and the admiration of your colleagues and lobbyists might cause Helen Dewar to write glowingly of you in The Washington Post, but voters at home will probably want more of you. They may even expect you to practice parliamentary legerdemain on their behalf.
Fenno makes the case that, while in the Senate, Andrews continued to act not only like a House member but, even more pointedly, like a minority member of the House Appropriations Committee. What Fenno implies is that Andrews could not get out of the habit of cutting grubby little deals, offering pettifogging amendments, and serving as a delivery boy for shipments of loaves and fishes to constituents.
There would have been nothing wrong with this if Andrews had gone beyond legislative charcuterie, but nothing he did was part of anything bigger or nobler. He gloried in his role as parliamentary magician, errand boy, and Washington insider. This, in Fenno's view, fell short of what North Dakota voters wanted in a senator.
There is a lesson in all this for incumbents HI-starred enough to have to run in 1992. Indeed, the defeat of Andrews was a kind of harbinger of what lay in store for sitting congressmen. Andrews presented himself to the voters of North Dakota as an insider at the very moment that the tide of anti-insiderism was beginning to rise. Smitten with the magnificence of his own backroom maneuvers on Capitol Hill, Andrews' boasts were often received by voters with puzzlement. In a particularly revealing passage, Fenno describes the convention of the North Dakota Nurses Association, at which Andrews appeared along with his anticipated 1986 rival, Rep. Byron Dotgan, and Senate colleague Quentin Burdick. While Burdick responded with blunt directness to questions and Dorgan drew broader implications from the nurses' concerns, Andrews spoke in the arcane Capitol Hill language of amendments, unanimous consent agreements, and floor action. He apparently forgot that he was not in Washington regaling lobbyists on the subject of some procedural triumph in which he had snookered an adversary. The essence of American politics may be compromise, but when you reduce it all to deal-making, it can come off looking sordid.
The interpretations that Fenno draws so skillfully from Andrews' defeat go well beyond the U.S. Senate, and help to explain the lamentable record of sitting senators in securing either presidential nominations or the presidency itself. Since 1968, 28 senators have campaigned for the presidency, and only one--George McGovern in 1972 ---even came away with a nomination. Though the reasons for this sorry record are many, at least one explanation is that senators are, as Stephen Hess has called them, the ultimate insiders. Having written speeches for a few senators who were aiming for a presidential nomination, I can attest that the toughest task is to stop them from lapsing into the characteristic, and usually fatal, legislative braggadocio: I co-sponsored this; I was the principal sponsor of that; I served on this or that conference committee. It's like speaking to the American public in Old Norse.
Without question, Fenno's success as a congressional observer---a talent very much on display in When Incumbency Fails-owes more to anthropology than to contemporary political science. Dispensing with the usual social science impedimenta, Fenno gets his subjects to open up, and their reflections make compelling reading.
--Ross K. Baker
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|Author:||Baker, Ross K.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1992|
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