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Gwen’s Take: Who Exactly Are the Bums?

With a little more than six weeks left before Americans go to the polls and put us out of our midterm election madness/misery, this year’s prevailing political story line got a fresh bump this week: voters want to throw the bums out.

This morning-after punditry has become more and more predictable with every new poll and every primary election night. Americans are angry, economically stressed and completely over Washington. Obama. Congress. It matters not. They just know what’s happening now is not working.

This spells danger for anyone who seems too content (say, bailed-out bankers), too prosperous (say, bailed out automakers) or too … Washington. Watch out, incumbents.

But really, is everyone a bum? And are voters willing to completely scour the nation’s capital clean?

Ponder this. Even with the great uprising we have seen at the polls — especially in Delaware, Kentucky, Florida, Utah and states where out-of-the-blue tea party candidates have knocked off insiders — Roll Call reported this week that a stunning 98 percent of congressional incumbents have won re-nomination this year.

If you haven’t heard that number, it’s probably because many political analysts — I admit, often including me — have subscribed lock, stock and barrel to the notion that this is an anti-incumbent election.

It is easy to see how that notion has taken root. In the latest New York Times/CBS poll, a whopping 60 percent said the country is on the wrong track.

Plus, the incumbents or presumed favorites who have been beaten, have lost in spectacular and often surprising fashion.

Lisa Murkowski, Robert Bennett, Arlen Specter and Mike Castle will tell you that the voters in Alaska, Utah, Pennsylvania and Delaware seemed mighty peeved with anyone carrying the taint of Washington this year. Hence, previously unknown candidates like Joe Miller, Mike Lee, Joe Sestak and Christine O’Donnell have captured the headlines.

All that shock value counts for something. Murkowski, who flew into the teeth of a Sarah Palin endorsement (for her opponent) apparently never saw her primary election day spanking coming.

Specter, who switched parties when he saw a conservative GOP challenge headed his way, was bested by a more liberal Democrat, retired admiral and two-term congressman, Joe Sestak. Bennett was ousted at his own party convention in Utah and was the first senator denied renomination in 70 years. And O’Donnell, as we saw this week, charged to victory without benefit of party endorsement or establishment enthusiasm.

Not all of this is about tea party politics, but it is certainly worth finding out what all that fuss is about. So far, neither party appears to have a clue. And even some self-proclaimed tea partiers seem aware they might have a tiger by the tail that could turn and scoop them up, too.

The tea party may be powerful for now, but it is certainly not predictable. Steve Inskeep on NPR’s “Morning Edition” captured this neatly this week by interviewing two tea partiers who clearly have different sets of priorities.

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association wants the emphasis to be on “cultural and social values,” including “the sanctity of life” and “resisting the homosexual agenda.”

Meanwhile, Toby Marie Walker, co-founder and president of the Waco Tea Party told Inskeep her focus is on “constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility.”

What do they have in common? A firm belief that Washington is not doing what they want. Priorities, apparently, can be sorted out later.

It’s fair to say that Republicans are trying to get ahead of that freight train. “What we are looking at is a new electorate that is sending a message,” GOP strategist Kevin Madden told me on the PBS NewsHour this week. “And it’s taking us a lot longer than it should have, in order to get it.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are left hoping that the tea party train accelerates with enough velocity that it jumps its own tracks — taking the GOP with it. “One of the things that happens when you have so much energy so far on the right side of the party is, they tend to leave the middle behind,” Democratic strategist Steve McMahon told me hopefully.

But polls show that middle — the independents Barack Obama counted on to win in 2008 — may have already left the room. In any case, the chase is on — and the “bums” are running for their lives.

This Gwen’s Take post is cross-posted from the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.