Brat vs. McDaniel

Tea Partiers should be watching Mississippi and Virginia very closely and watching the difference between two upstart candidates.

In Mississippi, conservative activists feel slighted by national Republican groups who supported Sen. Thad Cochran. Given the last-minute, over-the-top race baiting rhetoric that all but accused the Tea Party of resurrecting Jim Crow laws, you can see where McDaniel supporters are coming from. (Even if the NRSC or other Republicans didn’t green-light the strategy, the guilt-by-association isn’t a huge jump.)

And McDaniel walked right into it.

Even as an incumbent, Thad Cochran was not a great primary candidate.  A good opponent with a good campaign would have knocked him off without even needing a runoff. McDaniel could not jump over the low ankle hurdle of competence. How bad was he? He was a worse candidate than Cochran.

McDaniel’s sketchy connections with neo-Confederate groups were already in the public discourse. So when Cochran’s allies floated the idea of “expanding the electorate” to win the runoff, McDaniel’s response – deploying poll watchers to shoo away ineligibles – fed the narrative. Creating mental images of militant racist whites intimidating black voters was an easy bridge to cross in the minds of many voters.

The right response to Cochran saying he’s expanding the electorate should have been: “Bring it on, Broseph.” Well, maybe not the Broseph part, but you get the picture. He could have added: “I invite all Mississippians who are eligible to come to the polls. As we showed in the runoff, the more people who hear about our vision know that we stand for a brighter vision for all of Mississippi. I welcome the vote of anyone who agrees.” Or something like that.

That’s all he would have had to say. And yet, McDaniel kept talking about outsiders invading the primary- and he’s still talking, exploring ways to challenge the outcome. In defeat, McDaniel has talked more than the guy who pulled an actual upset, Dave Brat.

Brat has been pretty quiet since giving the political world a rare surprise by defeating Rep. Eric Cantor. Think about it: In a world of constant analysis and near-ubiquitous news coverage, no one saw Brat’s win coming. And he didn’t just squeak it out – he beat an incumbent in leadership by 10 points. (Disclosure: The firm I work for did work for Cantor’s campaign.) In the weeks since, outside of a statement criticizing the President’s immigration policies, Brat has been pretty tight-lipped in the national media.

Any so-called “Tea Party” candidate is going to wear a big old target on their back during this election cycle – just like they did in 2012. Democrats looking to cut their losses will surely look to take any candidate’s misstep and blow it up to build a national narrative. Brat hasn’t given them any ammunition; McDaniel practically loaded the guns for them. The candidate class of 2014 will need to speak carefully to avoid McDaniel’s fate.

Obama’s Bad News Power Rankings: 6.08.2013

What’s worse than spending a week rehashing an old scandal? Spending a week rehashing old scandals while dealing with a new one.

  1. NSA targets everybody. (New!)  The President’s explanation that the concept of domestic is critical for national security makes the assumption that America looks at him the way they looked at his predecessor in 2003.  Claiming that broad oversight powers are necessary doesn’t sound so good after the public has spent weeks of hearing about flouting First Amendment rights, picking on political opponents with the IRS, and inconsistent stories about the attack in Benghazi.  Further, the wording of the President’s response – that there must be a choice between rights and safety – won’t help allay the public’s fears.
  2. IRS targets the Tea Party.  (Last week: 4)  The good news for the IRS?  The expensive and idiotic videos, coupled with news about the opulent conferences, give credence to the Administration’s claim that the IRS is not malicious, just incompetent.
  3. DOJ targets the Press.  (Last week: 1)  Senator Joe Manchin suggested that Eric Holder ought to think about resigning.  That someone in his own party would even bring this up demonstrates the bipartisan misgivings about seizing phone records from reporters.
  4. State Department targets the truth about Benghazi.  (Last week: 3)  Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings are sinking.  What difference, at this point, does that make?  It’s evidence that the American public is highly skeptical of the Administration.
  5. Obamacare targets American wallets.  (Last week: 2)  Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said this week that the Obamacare-induced hikes in insurance rates actually represent reductions in cost.  Yes, she did actually say that.

Wild Card: GOP targets Facebook.  The hiring of new CTO Andy Barkett from Facebook means the RNC may actually have the tools to start organizing around some of these scandals.

Applauding the extreme

A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians,  there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds.  What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:

This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.

Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy…  And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government.  (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)

It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds.  King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.

But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable.  People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011.  There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy.  The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments.  More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.

Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.

The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010.  It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.

But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting.  And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.

That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BACHMANN!

It’s shaping up to be a big week for Minnesotans running for President, with Michelle Bachmann yesterday suggesting that there might be a future announcement about preparing to make an announcement that she would consider heavily running for President.  (That’s an official FEC designation, as I understand it.)

For 2012, it’s tough to see where Bachmann will draw support.  She has made plenty of inroads with tea partiers, but her operation may be short on organizational infrastructure – a polite way of saying that the usual top-level consultants who know how a Presidential race is run may not want to touch her with a 40 foot pole.  (And what candidate would you touch with a 40 foot pole?  But that’s a question for another blog.)  Perhaps sensing vulnerability and indecision from Palin – or with inside knowledge that she won’t run – Bachmann sees the potential for a candidate straight out of central casting for the strong, suburban soccer mom demographic like herself to fill the gap.

Or maybe Bachmann is, despite all the criticism, pretty smart about the nature of political movements.  Some pundits might advise she bide her time, run for Governor or Senate, and table her White House ambitions until 2016, 2020, or even 2024.  But while the tea party movement where her support is based is very relevant now, the reality is that its influence may have already crested with the 2010 election.  If it could carry her through Iowa and possibly South Carolina early on, she could at least score a pretty good speaking slot at the Republican Convention.  It would be a long shot, but it also might be her best shot.

The Tea Party’s first casualty of 2012

A moderate Democrat Senator, who had been backed into some tough votes, was made vulnerable by his public allegiance to President Obama.  The only possible path to victory would be a tea party Republican candidate lacking in media savvy and unable to connect with voters.  Unfortunately for Jim Webb, he isn’t Harry Reid.  Despite a wide-open Republican field stuck between lesser-known candidates and former YouTube sensations, Webb is not running for re-election in 2012.

Many political observers thought a groundswell of conservative activism would upend incumbents in 2012 – speculation included Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar, and even the normally safe Olympia Snowe falling in primaries.  Webb’s surprise exit beats them all.

Even without an opponent at this point, Webb had to see the writing on the wall that his re-election would be tough.   The redemption-seeking retread candidacy of George Allen is ripe for a tea party upset, and other candidates are lining up as well.  But with excited conservative activists and the absence of national Democrat momentum, Webb was destined to join Creigh Deeds in the second place circle in November 2012, even against a fringe tea partier.

Put another way, Sharron Angle, who narrowly lost to Reid, probably would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  John Buck in Colorado likely would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  Webb doesn’t have the long record of public service that Reid boasts, nor the leadership, nor the ability to raise nearly $25 million to holdhis seat.  Democratic campaign committees and independent groups were unlikely to chip in – races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, plus pickup opportunities in Nevada and Massachusetts, will all rank ahead of Virginia for national Democrats.

Aside from the realities of the electoral map, investing in a Virginia race with Jim Webb as your candidate has a strategic messaging issue.  After all, Democrats were able to beat back some challengers in 2010 by convincing independents that specific Republicans – such as Angle – were a bit loony.  Michael Bennet, Chris Coons, Reid, and others were able to paint themselves as sane alternatives to “crazy tea partiers.”

There is simply no conceivable way the tea party could out-crazy Jim Webb.


3 Reasons why the tea party movement won this week

The conventional wisdom is that Tuesday was a mixed bag for the tea party movement thanks to losses of tea party-backed candidates in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware, and Alaska.  Even outlets on the right feel like it was a disappointing showing.  Some moderate Republicans are grousing that tea party enthusiasm in Nevada and Delaware cost the Republicans Senate seats.

If your context is two weeks instead of two years, then that makes a lot of sense.  In fact, if think long-term both in the past and the future, tea partiers had much to be proud of on Tuesday.

1. The tea party movement gave grassroots activists a reason to be excited.

Remember the campaign of 2008, when cool, smooth Barack Obama trounced that doddering old fool John McCain?  Remember 70% approval ratings and mastery of all forms of media, even the ones you hadn’t heard of yet?  Remember Pepsi changing its logo to look more like Obama’s?

Obama wasn’t just a politician when he came into office, he was a pop culture phenomenon.  What’s more, the enthusiasm his campaign engendered had turned red states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia blue.  Meanwhile, and more important, as Obama spoke of health care and financial reform, Republicans could only play defense as the “party of ‘No.'”  The popular image was of a party bereft of ideas.

Would you sit in a cramped campaign office and make phone calls for that party?

As the tea party movement got underway, it gave conservative activists something productive to do – and the chance to rail against the President’s programs in well-organized displays of opposition that also built a solid political infrastructure.  The smart conservative groups – like FreedomWorks – jumped on the bandwagon right away, recognizing the value in an organic movement of politically passionate individuals and helping set them up to take meaningful action later.

2. Tea party rallies set the terms of the debate over Administration initiatives.

To understand how tea party activism changed the debate over health care, consider that the health care industry was lining up behind the Democrats.  If you were in the industry, the bill seemed inevitable and the smart move was to figure out how to get some federal money to wet your beak.

Tea partiers responded to the health care bill, the automobile industry bailouts, and economic recovery initiatives like TARP and the stimulus packages with a consistent small-government message. Republicans still burdened by the yolk of a surprisingly big-government Bush Administration could not initiate this message, but they sure could respond to it.

This week’s election was framed by a philosophical debate over the role of government.  That had a lot to do with the fact that, for all the jokes about misspelled signs, the tea party movement had a pretty consistent message.

3.  The 2010 primary season was a wake up call to 2012 Republican candidates.

Mike Castle should have been able to beat Christine O’Donnell the way the hare should have been able to beat the tortoise.  So it’s tough to say that an easy primary would have resulted in a cakewalk to November victory.  Ditto for the established Nevada Republicans running against Harry Reid, who found themselves on the sideline after Sharron Angle’s upset.  It is tempting to play “shoulda woulda coulda” with the primary results, but the fact is that these primary losers chose not to engage an excited base of conservative activists for fear of not appearing moderate enough to win a general election.  They chose poorly.

Meanwhile, John McCain recognized the early threat of a challenger, acted like his primary was an election and not a coronation, and is still a Senator.  In winning re-election, McCain demonstrated that tea partiers aren’t out for blood, but they do want elected officials who are responsive to the folks they represent.  And any incumbent or favored Republican for a 2012 office now can get a nice head start.

If Virginia’s George Allen wants a rematch with Jim Webb in 2012, he will have to understand he has work to do among Virginia conservatives.  Long-time GOP incumbents like Olympia Snowe, Orrin Hatch, and Richard Lugar – and even first-time incumbents like Bob Corker – now have a year and a half to start making nice with their respective bases.  There may still be messy primary battles, but the so-called “better candidates” who could deliver general election victories will be ready for them.

Incidentally, a big bonus win, this splash of cold water does not include Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell actually winning races and being Senators – which might have been distracting and damaging to ongoing GOP efforts.  Those two darlings of media ridicule are gone now

The tea party movement is in fact a political movement and not a political party.  Because of that, tea partiers have the luxury of having their effectiveness judged over multiple election cycles.  To use an example on the other side, one might have said after the 2004 election that the online left “netroots” were a failure – Howard Dean didn’t win any primaries, and they didn’t knock off President Bush in a tight election that was winnable for John Kerry.  But in a parallel to the 2010 Alaska race, they defeated Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in 2006 and formed the base of an impressive grassroots effort for Obama in 2008.  Similarly, the real measure of the tea party movement – as either a one-cycle phenomenon or a long-term grassroots movement – will be clearer in 2012.

IT’S A TRAP: NBC/WSJ poll says GOP is in trouble

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll – the one that showed the Republicans with big edges in preference among likely voters – is a warning flag for the GOP.  (Of note, it was NBC’s Today show, thanks to Chuck Todd, who hit on this issue this morning.  As much as I’ve bashed them, you have to give credit where credit is due.)

Most media outlets are pointing out the big advantages Republicans enjoy.  Voters are saying they would prefer Republicans in charge of Congress, they don’t much care for Nancy Pelosi, and they don’t buy the argument that the incoming class would hearken back to the days of Dubya.  But buried in most of the coverage is a potential looming problem: differences in opinion among voters about what their votes mean.

Check out the bottom of page 12 of the poll results.  Republicans and self-identified Tea Partiers are thinking about this election as a chance to reign in the federal government to its constitutionally defined boundaries; independents are more concerned with jobs and the economy.  The Ackbarian trap here lies in how Republicans craft their messages once the business of campaigning turns into the business of governing.

Those two items – sticking to the Constitution and helping the economy – are not mutually exclusive, but the response to this question does indicate a differing value system.  The easy strategy is to pay attention to which audience is receiving certain communications and tailor messages accordingly; as is often the case, the easy strategy is not the best.

The simple fact is that basing policy solely on a 225-year-old piece of paper doesn’t do anything to translate to an independent voter how that policy will help him or her or the country as a whole.  Frankly, the argument sounds like a crutch.  (“Look, it would be nice to give everyone, but this document – which actually said buying people like you would buy cattle was ok until 1808 – says we can’t do it.  Sorry!”)  However, despite the media intimations to the contrary, the idea that our government has gone well beyond the limits that were set out for it – and that doing so has actually caused more problems than it has solved – is quite an intellectual conclusion, and suggests that these are pretty savvy political observers.  These activists will support Constitutional policies without someone spelling out why those policies are constitutional.

Unfortunately, politicians seem to have trouble understanding that keeping a base engaged need not be pandering, and engaging the political center needn’t involve moderating one’s beliefs.  Through that cynical view, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll seems to forecast Republican political gains tomorrow followed by confusion on messaging over policy priorities in 2011.  (That also cuts out an interesting role for tea party activists as the conscience of the Republican party.)

To sell their economic policies on November 3 and beyond, the GOP will have to get smart on talking to the center from the right.  That they have been able to do so successfully in the past year speaks to their probable success in 2010; how well they do so in the next year will decide their success in 2012.

Sunday Funnies: Taking on FreedomWorks

This week, Tommy Christopher at Mediaite shared this parody of FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe and the tea party movement:

If the character playing Kibbe sounds a little familiar, it’s because he’s the former voiceover artist who left a threatening voicemail with FreedomWorks resulting in him getting axed from GEICO.  (Happiest guy about this?  That “Could switching to GEICO really save you 15% or more” guy who looks like an extra from Mad Men.)

The joke is a bit of inside baseball – if you follow politics closely you recognize the takeoff of Kibbe’s signature ‘burns.  But it’s so clearly directed at FreedomWorks, that its limited appeal really doesn’t matter – this is nothing but an FU to FW.

It isn’t deserved, but at least it’s funny.

Deconstructing the primaries

What might be the best wrap-up of yesterday’s primary results was published before the returns came in.  As media outlets keep dropping over-simplistic terms like “tea party support” and “outsiders vs. insiders” to explain what happened, the Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney boils the divide in Republican politics down as “the Tea Party Wing against the K Street Wing” – a divide which is not simply ideological or experiential:

The main distinction… might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money. Nevada’s Sharron Angle is anti-bailout and anti-subsidy. [Kentucky candidate Rand] Paul could try to shrink defense spending and ethanol subsidies. In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio isn’t a game player like [former Senator Bob] Dole’s buddy Crist is.

This morning, we hear that Lisa Murkowski is in trouble against “tea partier” Joe Miller, that John McCain bested an insurgent challenge from a more conservative candidate, and that established Republican Bill McCollum lost out to Rick Scott.

So if you’re scoring at home, “the establishment” won some and lost some, with Alaska up in the air – at least, according to most of the talking heads you see.

But can you call McCain an establishment Republican candidate?  McCain had bucked national party leadership in his own way for decades, often lashing out at the K Street types Carney mentions above.  As Matt Lewis noted – again, before polls closed yesterday – he fought a serious race against an opponent with more clear ties to K Street establishmentism.  Last week, the New York Times saw fit to print that Alaska’s rugged individualism was either inconsistent or an outright sham because of its dependence on federal money; regardless of how the final tallies go for the scion of the Murkowski family goes, her ability to keep winning earmarks did not lead to an easy victory lap.  And Bill McCollum was part of a Republican establishment in Florida rocked with a spending scandal earlier this year.

And of course, there’s the big caveat that each race has its own local interpretations of who counts as “the establishment” and who really is an “outsider.”  All the more reason to look at the results through Carney’s prism rather than the crystal ball which other analysts are trying to use.

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs

Arizona’s new immigration has, predictably, led to protests.   John Hawkins of Right Wing News chronicles some of the disturbing signs that the pro-illegal immigration protesters have been waving about.  Here’s my favorite:

These signs in and of themselves aren’t really relevant, but as Hawkins points out, outlets like the Huffington Post love to bring their cameras to tea party rallies to capture the “shocking” rhetoric they see there. It’s an astute parallel to draw: If you want to judge the tea partiers by their most extreme elements, don’t you have to judge the pro-illegal immigration movement the same way?

Doing either misses the bigger images that each movement brings to the table.  For instance, in many of the pictures Hawkins displays, extreme signs calling for the overthrow of America obscure protesters with American flags in the background.  The undercurrent of the immigration debate is a quest for the American dream, not the racist rhetoric on the signs – a revelation which puts the debate in a new perspective, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying.

That might be a good lesson to kind in mind for those covering the tea parties, too.