Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stepping into the Glare

Everyone has their view on November's mid-term elections. Some, particularly those on the Right, are predicting major gains by the Republicans. History does show that the next election following a party change in the White House almost always brings losses for the party in power. Some of the more fanciful among them even crow that the results will sweep the Democrats out of the majority in both houses. This is highly unlikely as it would require a huge change in representation to bring those sorts of results. My take on the coming elections is that it is likely to be messy, but I doubt it will herald a significant swing in Congress one way or the other. Contrary to the so called conventional wisdom I don't think you will see any widespread ousting of incumbents. It will happen here and there, but probably not on any grand scale. While there is some incumbent distrust, particularly from the Right, it has yet to really show up as a significant issue in the primaries so far. Only a couple incumbents have been pushed out of the race so far. But the Tea Party movement has managed to make some inroads in several races with primary wins, particularly in Kentucky with Rand Paul and in Nevada with Sharon Angle. The problem is that once these candidates step out of their political comfort zone in their party's primaries and into the general election, their far Right and in some cases 'wing-nut Right' views become problematic.

Kentucky's Rand Paul, son of former Presidential hopeful and Republican Congressman Ron Paul, rode the Tea Party wave to beat the establishment choice who was backed by Senator McConnell and other mainstream Republicans. Almost immediately though he found himself in the center of a controversy as soon as he stepped out of the primary and onto the stage of the general election. In interviews with NPR and later Rachel Maddow his solidly Libertarian philosophy of a very limited Federal government was lit up in neon when the subject of the 1964 Civil Rights act came up. While affirming his general support he couldn't stop himself from making it clear that he did have an issue with the part of the law that would require private businesses who served the public to stop discriminating based on race or ethnic criteria. Put simply, he seems to feel that when it comes to a private business, the Federal government should not step in to force compliance of non-discrimination. It should be left essentially to market forces to decide the issue. In other words, if a restaurant discriminates in who it will serve, then the free market will punish them over time and eventually force them to make changes. It fits into the general Libertarian view of a small, generally hands off central government.  Some, of course, began to accuse him of racism, which he denied, saying he was against discrimination and wouldn't patronize a club or business that did and I believe him. I don't think, strictly speaking, that he is a racist, but this does point to a social stand that I think is very much a minority viewpoint. Especially once you step outside the Conservative side of the political landscape.

In Nevada, Sharon Angle won in a crowded field of challengers all vying for a chance to face Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. The primary included Sue Lowden who became infamous for her suggestion that healthcare costs could be reduced if we returned to the golden age of barter; for example, paying your doctor with a chicken or offering to paint his house. I find myself concerned about the house painting idea as it may well clash with your need for medical attention. But Sharon Angle won out and has now been thrust into the general election which requires more exposure to the glare of non-Conservative media. Suddenly her remarks from previous months and years are finding their way into the public consciousness and some people, me included, are thinking she may have some significant baggage in tow. First are various statements she has made over the last 6 months that have all been variations on the same theme. In January during a radio interview she stated: "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies . . ." Now I know what this statement, and the others using almost identical language, sounds like to me but I'd be interested to hear her clarification, except now that she is out of the Republican primary she is determined to side-step questions about this that are understandably coming from the local and mainstream media. In one confrontation with a local reporter who asked her about the quote, instead of answering this question and others in the same vein, she kept telling the reporter to "go ask Harry Reid.”  It was a classic case of a politician who was trying very hard to only deal with the Conservative media and got surprised by someone who actually wanted her to defend her positions. Among her other stated concerns are an interest in getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, transitioning Social Security into a private system and concerns about fluoridation of drinking water. This last hearkens back to the heyday of Communist conspiracy theories in the 1950s. Dr. Strangelove aficionados will undoubtedly crack a smile or maybe even have a good chuckle at the reference.

Both of these candidates have the exact same problem. Their campaigns have focused heavily on the Conservative base so they could win Republican primaries, but in so doing they have had to ride on policy ideas and beliefs that appealed to the core Conservative constituencies. Unfortunately for them, the core of the Conservative movement has, over the last couple years, side stepped several yards to the right of what it was previously. This means the candidates are in a difficult position in a general state election where they will require the support of moderate and independent voters to win. However the very strengths that won them the party primaries are now being used against them by their Democratic opponents. This is what I think we are going to see, writ large, in the run-up to the mid-term elections: Conservative candidates riding high as they come out of primary victories, but then being bloodied badly as they come into contact with the rest of the voting populace. Both of these candidates are doing their best to avoid this by sheltering under the cover of Conservative media outlets. Doing everything they can to limit exposure to 'unfriendly' journalists, in other words any reporter who won't smile and agree with everything they say. It will be interesting to see how this will work. It didn't help Sarah Palin in her 2008 Vice Presidential run. Once she found herself unable to avoid talking to more main stream media outlets the number of quotes and policy positions that made moderates go, "Huh?!" rose sharply and the McCain/Palin campaign staff was required to waste a lot of time and energy to attempt damage control. Ultimately these encounters with actual journalists cost the McCain-Palin campaign more votes than Palin's young, brash, outsider status brought in. While she has since found a strange sort of cult celebrity, she is not taken seriously by anyone outside the far Right. And therein lies the crux of the problem.  In a time when the Republican Right wing is pulling the whole party farther from the Middle and almost demonizing Moderate views, many Republican candidates are entering the general elections with massive gaps between themselves and their Democratic opponents. The danger for them is that Independents and Moderates might actually be more inclined to vote for a conservative Democrat over a far Right Republican whose ideas seem out of touch with the general public. I think a number of these new Conservative stars are going to stumble badly as moderates and independents discover more and more about them.

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