The Tea Party, the "establishment", and political reality
This note was originally written less than 24 hours after the election; I delayed publication for a week on the advice of a wise friend who suggested that I should not be seen as "kicking Ken when he is down" if that's not my intention -- which it isn't.
As I write this around noon on Wednesday, the day after the 2010 elections, it looks increasingly likely that Ken Buck has lost the Colorado US Senate race to spineless appointed Senator Michael "Who?" Bennet, a man who has no idea what he believes, who gets permission for his votes, and then to change those votes, a man who almost laughably ran as a fiscal conservative after voting for every nation-bankrupting piece of legislation which our Dear Leader wanted passed.
Just how is it that in a year like this, where almost every swing seat in the nation went to Republicans, Colorado elects a liberal Howdy Doody to represent us in the Senate?
Yes, in part, there was some collateral damage from the Dan Maes and Scott McInnis fiascoes, but Ken Buck seemed to sidestep most of that and although Bennet's margin of victory was small, I don't think it was governor's race fall-out which caused the loss.
And yes, third party candidates siphoned off votes, but if you look at the breakdown the Green candidate did as much damage to Bennet as the Libertarian or other candidates did to Buck, and I don't see the combination of third parties accounting for Bennet's net margin of victory. (That said, if Buck was shown to have lost because of the presence of a Libertarian candidate, it would not have broken my heart, especially since the race did not impact a Senate majority.)
But what brought Ken Buck down from what appeared to be a wide lead in early polling to losing by about 1% of the votes cast was a combination of demonization by the left and his own words.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the implosion of Dan Maes and the obvious error of the Tea Party movement in pushing him to victory masked a (much) smaller version of a similar error regarding Buck.
Before Buck's core supporters start jumping up and down and screaming at me, let me be clear: Early on, I said Buck was a decent candidate and a decent guy -- but that he was not the best candidate.
Yet right up to three days ago, when I called Buck a "weak candidate", a Buck supporter chastised me, saying that "his campaign is grassroots and genuine" - as if that responded to my assertion. After all, plenty of losers had campaigns which were "grassroots and geniune". And when I explained again that I supported Jane Norton because I thought she and Buck were all but identical on policy (except for Afghanistan, where I preferred Buck), I was (again) called an "establishment windbag."
There is no doubt that Jane was the "establishment" candidate and, despite these critics' implication, I generally avoid supporting such politicians, shown not least by my aggressive and public refusal to support John McCain.
But being the favorite of "establishment" players should not be an automatic disqualification from consideration even by enthusiastic lovers of liberty such as the Tea Party movement, just as being an unqualified very-small-businessman with few solid policy positions and fewer clues about politics should not be an automatic "that's good enough for me."
I understood then and understand now that people had other problems with Jane, not least her (tepid) support for Referendum C back when her boss was pushing for it. That's why I took a few hours speaking with her in great detail about Ref C and a wide range of other policy issues before endorsing her with the explicit reasoning that Ken Buck would be much easier for the left to demonize than Jane would be.
Buck's supporters and Tea Party activists jumped down my throat for this endorsement. Indeed, my position was even contrary to the views of many of my closest friends in the world of Colorado politics and the Colorado political blogosphere. But my intent was simply to call it as I saw it. I had never met Norton or Buck before the primary season and had no bias for or against either of them when starting my analysis. If anything, my anti-McCain bias gave Jane Norton an additional hurdle to cross before getting my support given her close ties to Senator McCain.
Nothing I learned during the primary caused me to back away from my take on the situation that Ken would have a lower chance of winning than Jane would. (Admittedly, I didn't think Ken would actually lose, just that his chances of losing were substantially higher than Jane's.)
Allow me to quote from my June 11th public endorsement of Jane Norton:
Many activist Republicans complain bitterly and with good reason about “electability” being used as a factor in choosing a candidate. Electability, for example, is what allowed Arlen Specter to beat Pat Toomey by less than 2% in Pennsylvania’s 2004 GOP Senate primary. Perhaps electability is what gave us John McCain as the GOP candidate for president two years ago.
But Jane Norton is no John McCain nor is she an Arlen Specter. So, since I think that Jane Norton is at least Ken Buck’s equal in terms of understanding the value of liberty, especially political and economic liberty (since no conservative is where I want him to be on liberty in our private lives, such as regarding marijuana legalization), it seems to me that electability then becomes a legitimate concern. And I think Jane Norton is somewhat more likely to beat a Democrat than Ken Buck is.
...I believe that if Norton and her supporters had spent a fraction of the time and cash going after Buck which has been used by Buck’s friends to attack Norton, then Buck wouldn’t be polling nearly this well. And I believe that it will be much more difficult during the general election campaign for Democrats to demonize Jane Norton than to demonize Ken Buck.
As a friend of mine put it shortly after the election results were clear, "I really do believe Jane would have won, though. Less baggage, less rigid social issue positions, high heels, clearer understanding of the principles of liberty, and most importantly a lot more discipline with her mouth. They can say no one would have withstood the incredible onslaught of demo group spending, but a less vulnerable candidate would have attracted less spending.
In retrospect, I think my early analysis of the race remains prescient and accurate. My point is not that I'm a political genius, but that the wonderful enthusiasm of Tea Party and 9/12 group members, especially those rather new to politics, must be tempered with at least several parts-per-million of practical electoral reality. And that such tempering does not make one a sell-out.
Again, the Buck/Norton situation is nothing like the Dan Maes situation. I remain convinced that Maes is a fraud searching for 15 minutes of fame who made more money by campaign "reimbursements" than he's made in years and that the people who continued to support him in the last several weeks of the election were...well, to be nice, let me just say misguided. Ken Buck is a far superior candidate and person to Dan Maes and I would not do Buck the insult of comparing him in any important way to Maes.
So, my comparison here isn't between those two men but simply about the reaction of the Tea Party to them versus their opponents.
I understand loathing Scott McInnis. In my meeting with him, he was charming to me in the way that Kaa the python is charming to Mowgli in "The Jungle Book", trying to hypnotize with soothing words before squeezing (money or political favors out of) you in his coils.
And from starting in a bad position, McInnis only made it worse by trying to blame his plagiarism on an 82-year old research assistant rather than manning-up, taking responsibility, offering a big mea culpa (and refund), and moving on. I don't know that McInnis could have beaten Hickenlooper, but even a damaged McInnis (maybe not quite as damaged as he eventually became) was probably a better candidate than the real Dan Maes, not the Walter Mitty candidate Maes wanted us to see.
But Tea Partiers were so eager to support anyone who had never held political office before (apparently Buck's Weld County AG job seemed to pass muster as not seriously political, or something like that) that they attacked McInnis (who deserved attack, though the alternative to him was even worse) and Norton whose primary offense was to have the support of John McCain.
And so they did, beating a pathetic McInnis by a razor-thin margin (an early sign of how weak Maes was despite the fact that Maes operated with little name recognition and little money) and giving Ken Buck the nod over Jane Norton. The Maes/McInnis situation was such remarkable political theater that relatively little thought was given to the meaning of the Buck/Norton race, but I submit that they were roughly similar in nature (other than that Buck was probably not, as Maes was, the beneficiary of financial assistance from Democrats). They both represented Tea Party candidates -- though Buck tried to avoid that characterization -- triumphing over the evil "establishment", an amorphous group which Tea Partiers seemed to think of as something like the Empire from the Star Wars movies.
But from even before the moment of his primary victory, it was mostly down hill for Ken Buck.
Whether it was the public disagreement with Tom Tancredo's picnic remark about Barack Obama being the biggest threat to America or his statement suggesting repeal of the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) followed by two months of retractions or a similar pattern regarding his views on Social Security, Ken Buck was a man too eager to please everyone.
At least when it came to important questions where there is a legitimate government involvement, he was all too willing to moderate.
However, when it came to social issues where -- whether social conservatives like it or not -- many voters disagree with Ken outright, many voters want at least a shred of flexibility and common sense even if they basically agree, and a majority of voters think are properly a focus for a time when unemployment is well below 10%, Ken Buck was at his most uncompromising.
Buck advocated an anti-abortion position without exception for cases of rape or incest. Thus, while Buck won 54% of the vote among men, he lost 56% of women voters. Beyond that, he motivated pro-choice organizations to work particularly hard to beat him. I'm not saying Buck should have campaigned as pro-choice, but his ultra-hard-line anti-abortion position was certainly a major factor in his loss.
As if that weren't bad enough, Buck then said (as I and others have already spent too much time on but which bears repeating here) that being gay (or at least acting gay) is a choice. He added fuel to the fire by inartfully describing how he believed homosexuality is, in a certain way, like alcoholism. Separate from the fact that Buck's comments on choice of sexual preference (at least to the extent that he means how people are rather than how they act) defies common sense, his statements were political hari kiri.
I say all that fully recognizing that Buck could not have been prepared for David Gregory's "gotcha" question, but that a much better answer -- the answer a more thoughtful candidate would have given -- would have been "Let's talk about issues the voters care about" or "I'd rather not discuss personal views which relate to matters outside the legitimate role of government."
Again quoting myself from October 18th:
But in a election which gets closer every week, an election which Rasmussen now has as only a 2% edge for Buck, alienating gay Republicans and, more importantly, gay unaffiliated voters, while motivating gay Democrats against him is a substantial political mistake by Buck.
Beyond that, it plays precisely into the theme Michael “Who?” Bennet is using to define Buck: “too extreme for Colorado." If Buck keeps saying stuff like he said on Sunday, even I might start wondering if it’s true.
So by election week, Ken Buck had painted himself right into the corner where the Bennet campaign was already pushing him.
Why was it that a guy who was so tentative discussing matters of constitutional principle and so easily pushed off even discussing interesting but controversial policy ideas decided to be so forceful with so far-out-of-the-mainstream views on issues which are arguably none of a senator's business anyway?
At the end of the day, all I can do is sit here, shaking my head, and thinking of the rabid Buck supporters and Norton haters, whisper "I told you so", while taking no pleasure in the electoral outcome that allows and encourages such thoughts.
Ken Buck is a fine man, even though he is as extreme as Michael Bennet claimed on social issues -- and even if not on other issues, perhaps the reverse of what many voters really wanted. Jane Norton is a fine lady who is much more pro-capitalism and pro-Constitution than her detractors claimed. At the end of the day, they're both conservatives but one would have been a better general election candidate than the other.
In closing (for today, as this line of thinking will be an ongoing topic through the 2012 elections, I expect), I say to my critics that supporting Jane was not selling out and not representative of a fealty to the "establishment". Rather it was a recognition of the wisdom of William F. Buckley's rule to vote for the most conservative candidate who is electable. Or rather my twist on it, the most electable candidate who supports the Constitution.
I look back with some pride on my support of Jane (even while recognizing that neither she nor Buck would be my ideal candidate) and my take on the situation, and I hope that the lessons of the massive errors by Republicans, some well-meaning and some not so much, which gave the two biggest races in Colorado to the Democrats in the anti-Democrat tsunami of 2010 will be learned by establishment and grass-roots activists alike. There is no sin in supporting an "establishment" candidate if he or she is a principled pro-liberty person, no inherent evil in having held elective office before, and no inherent benefit in a candidate who has barely even thought about politics (other than an egotistical desire to hold office).
The goal must be good and limited government, not anti-experience pogroms. In that quest, all who desire limited government and liberty must look at races and candidates with clear eyes, clear minds, and the recognition that the best candidate might indeed not be the one you wish were the best candidate.
Buck supporters, I hate to say I told you so, but...
Looking toward the future, I trust that many Tea Party members who were political novices in 2010 have learned a lot from the movement's notable successes (Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, and many new House Republicans) and notable failures (Ken Buck, Dan Maes, Sharron Angle) and will put their tremendous and valuable energy to much more consistently positive use in 2012.
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