November 11, 2010
Learning from the LandslideBy J.R. Dunn
It's taken a good part of the past week for the breadth of the conservative achievement in the midterms to sink in. Over sixty new House seats, six Senate seats (we can safely say, no matter what occurs in Alaska, since Murkowski is a member of the Murkowski Party representing only Murkowski), thirty-plus statehouses, and no fewer than twenty "trifectas" -- that is, states in which the GOP owns the House, Senate, and governorship. The 2010 election was a victory both broad and deep, one that will be paying dividends for years to come.
It could have been better. Anything, in this imperfect world, can be better. The failings, needless to say, have drawn the attention of the media and the left, along with renegades such as David Frum, who have crowed over them as triumphs, as if retaining Harry Reid is something to be proud of. This has convinced the Democrats to continue banging their collective head against that same leftward stretch of wall. Evidently, both Reid and the most successful speaker since Cicero, Nancy Pelosi, are to be retained as party leaders. That too is a product of victory.
It's quite true that Sharron Angle should have beaten Reid and that Joe Miller should have beaten the repellent Murkowski (with Specter and Grayson gone, certainly the most odious politician of either party) in a walk. Neither came anywhere near. In Colorado, Ken Buck was barely edged out, which can happen under any circumstances. As for Christine O'Donnell, she never really had a chance in hyper-liberal Delaware, quite apart from the fact that "endearingly odd" is not a compelling senatorial persona.
Could these defeats have been avoided? With the exception of Christine O., I think so. What we're dealing with is the type of error that comes with lack of experience. The failings in the cases of both Angle and Miller were self-inflicted, involving gaffes that an experienced candidate would have known to avoid. This is something that future Tea Party candidates -- that is to say, candidates emerging from outside the traditional political class, and lacking the experience of that class -- will need to consider and overcome.
Most of these difficulties involved presentation. A number of TP candidates made remarks that they came to regret. Rand Paul's notorious comment on the unconstitutionality of the 1964 civil rights act might have sunk him if he'd followed it with anything similar. Luckily, he seems to have realized this (or perhaps Dad straightened him out), and he sailed through with no more such errors, praise be to Aqua Buddha.
Not so with Sharron Angle, who made an entire series of obtuse blurts culminating in a remark to a classroom of Hispanic children that she "didn't know what country they were from," a comment unworthy of her and one which helped seal her defeat by the obnoxious Harry Reid. This has been widely attributed to personality flaws on Angle's part, but I don't think that's entirely fair. There's a tradition among populist movements, of which the Tea Parties are the latest example, to speak forthrightly without self-censorship as a contrast to the euphemisms and verbal formulae of the political establishment. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it can lead to problems. It is often abused, as is constantly seen in public meetings where someone gets up and starts bellowing about "wetbacks" or the like, embarrassing the entire assembly and enabling the media to label all present Neanderthals. Or, as we saw in this recent campaign, populist candidates forget that the general public is not familiar with populist usage and may mistake straightforward comments for something else, which is precisely what happened with both Paul and Angle. We need to keep in mind that discretion is not an evil in and of itself and that forthrightness is a tactic not suitable to all circumstances.
Miller's problem was similar. He was railroaded into the handcuffs incident. He appears to have been unaware that he was being goaded. His opposition read him well. They were looking forward to seeing him respond to petty harassment in the style of a military officer, which is exactly what he did. It was something he simply should not have fallen for. Anyone possessing knowledge of the deeply corrupt Alaskan political milieu (and who doesn't after La Sarah's ordeal?) should have been aware that such a thing was coming and been prepared for it, mentally and emotionally as well as in every other sense.
We would not expect to see Allen West flourishing a pistol in the House chambers, and we would be taken aback if we did. The same is true of Miller. The handcuffing incident focused already existing doubts about his candidacy which he was unable to overcome. (Again, the same could have happened to Rand Paul when his security staff overreacted to the attempted sign assault. All that you can say about that is that some people luck out.)
Consider Nikki Haley in contrast. Haley was badgered even more consistently and vilely by her establishment Republican opponents. She scarcely acknowledged the attacks and ran a classy campaign, so doubts never crystallized around her despite the best attempts of the media to run with the adultery stories. Future Tea Party candidates should closely study the Haley campaign, which in many ways can serve as a model on how to prevail in a universally hostile political environment.
They should also pay close attention to experienced politicians and operatives, whether they fully share their views or not. These people possess a universe of irreplaceable knowledge that must not be thrown away. Tea Party candidates are in the position of amateurs who must develop professional capabilities without losing their amateur virtues. Professional political figures can aid immensely in this task. While the GOP handled many TP candidacies poorly, in the wake of 2010, this is not likely to recur. There has been a lot of loose talk since the election calling for open warfare on GOP figures for trivial reasons or none at all. This is asinine -- nothing can save the left at this point other than a civil war on the right. Much of this chatter appears to be coming from provocateurs, mixing as it does sheer vituperation with obvious ignorance of conservative politics. It would be best to simply ignore it.
As it stands, the current GOP is best divided into three groups:
1. Those who get it, such as Boehner (I'd like McConnell on the basis of his statement on GOP aims, which featured much of the Tea Party platform, but his stance on earmarks eliminates him. Like many pragmatists, McConnell undervalues symbolism. There could be no better symbol of a new GOP than a ban on earmarks);
2. Those like McCain, who can be shocked or frightened into straightening up; and
3. Those who need to go.
Fortunately, this last group is small. The two critical figures are Lindsey Graham, whose open attack on Tea Party candidates has simply added maliciousness to all his other virtues, and John Cornyn, against whom I have been railing since mastodons roamed the Rio Grande. Cornyn, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is perhaps most kindly characterized as erratic. While opposed to earmarks, he was the focus of much early GOP opposition to the Tea Party candidates, insisting on backing both Charlie Crist and Murkowski to the last minute and beyond. Even today, the best he could do for Joe Miller was to "encourage" the Republican rank and file to lend their support.
This will not do. Both of these professional trimmers should step down for the good of the party. If not, they should be targeted at the first opportunity.
But apart from that, we need to accept the fact that the TP-GOP mistakes have been made and need not be repeated. We must look forward to 2012 while carrying a clean slate. I reiterate here, and will repeat as often as necessary, that a Tea Party-GOP coalition will be unbeatable. No left-wing combine, not of unions, students, minorities, or whatever, will be able to challenge it. Anyone who wishes to tear apart such a winning combination should be viewed with suspicion.
One of the overlooked developments in the election was the fact that Maine flipped. During the 19th century, Maine, home of political legends James G. Blaine and Thomas "Czar" Reed, was a key Republican state. "As goes Maine," the saying went, "so goes the nation." But the state spent most of the 20th century as a political backwater, due in large part to lackluster representation. Backwaters tend to slide into liberal control, which is exactly what happened Down East.
A continuing oddity (not to say "grotesquery") of American politics is the number of conservative states with liberal superstructures, which includes Maine, West Virginia, and notoriously Arkansas, the sole holdout of the once-solid Democratic South. I lived in Maine for a short period a few years ago, and I found it just about the most conservative place I've encountered anywhere in my ramblings. Many of the old colonial ways still exist under the surface. You don't quite see the yeomanry doffing their hats and bowing to the grandees. Not quite -- but you wouldn't be surprised if you did.
And yet this ultraconservative state features one of the most ultra-liberal political establishments in the country, typified by the RINO sisters, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Nobody foresaw this as changing anytime soon, and certainly not as early as 2010. But changed it has with the gubernatorial victory of Paul LePage, a Tea Party man, along with the conquest of both legislative houses. The state of Maine has come under Republican control for the first time in fifty years.
This naturally leads us to ask: if Maine, why not West Virginia and Arkansas? The GOP has for far too long followed a policy of leaving liberal control of such states unchallenged. Why, I'm not sure. Perhaps out of judicious husbanding of resources, perhaps out of fear that the Dems would retaliate. Whatever the case, the recovery of Maine proves any such policy to be mistaken and shortsighted. Arkansas and West Virginia should be targeted as soon as 2012 and remain on the list until they are flipped at last. The Tea Parties are the perfect vehicle for carrying out such a strategy. Nonpartisan, impeccably middle-class, untainted by Republican flaws, capable of persuading where career pols would fail, the TPs can go where formal political parties cannot. The Maine example must not be ignored. There should be no privileged sanctuaries where the likes of Robert Byrd can set themselves up as state Grand Kleagle in perpetuity.
So we have three crucial lessons from 2010: one on the level of practice, one on the level of strategy, and one on the level of philosophy. There are no doubt many others that I'm too naïve or obtuse to see, but we'll all be learning from 2010 for some time to come. We have ample time to contemplate, reconsider, and make our plans.
It's an oddity of political relativity that the left, though facing the same amount of days and months, somehow doesn't have that same stretch of open time ahead of it. Even as they emerge shaking from the ruins, 2012 is closing in on them like a freight train. And that's the way it should be.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker.