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The ABCs Of Politicians

Even in zoos, donkeys and elephants turn their backs on their parties.
Even in zoos, donkeys and elephants turn their backs on their parties.

A. First, politicians began omitting their party affiliations on campaign literature and websites. Politics "is a dirty word," says David King, a lecturer on public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. King told the MetroWest Daily News: "Why would you want to put it right out there; why would you sell a shirt with a stain on it? You need to appeal on other terms by downplaying partisanship."

Then politicians started hiding the fact that they were incumbents — so as not to be saddled with present conditions. In June, the bipartisan watchdog group California Forward reported that "at least 10 sitting California state lawmakers running for re-election or new seats avoided disclosing their political office on the ballot by, instead, self-identifying as small business owners, farmers, or physicians."

B. Now comes word that some politicians are opting out of their party's respective national conventions. The Hill reports that more than a half-dozen incumbent Democrats will eschew Charlotte, and a couple of Republicans will give Tampa a pass. The candidates could be trying to create distance between themselves and their baggage-laden political parties. Or they might just want to focus on campaigning at home. Regardless, they will not be in the group photos from the conventions that will inevitably be posted on the Internet.

C. Because any commitment to a party or a cause these days is a call for partisan attacks, candidates are skittish. "There are two factors at work," says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "First, the standing of both parties is shaky. Democrats are nervous about tying themselves to [President] Obama, whose approval ratings are weak, and Republicans don't want to be connected to the congressional GOP, which remains highly unpopular. Second, there is still a strong anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mood in the air — so no party wants to be seen as too close to any establishment. Even their own."

The result: Politicians may soon be reduced to telling the bare minimum about their preferences and predilections. The incumbent president's bio, for instance, is a vast minefield of potential criticism. So how could he identify himself to avoid the barrage? Barack Obama. Lives with wife, Michelle, and two daughters. In a house. That's white.

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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