by Ken Feltman
Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.
We will all hear and read a great deal about NY-26, a congressional district in the Buffalo, New York area which Republicans have dominated for four decades. It was one of only four New York districts that Senator John McCain won in the 2008 presidential election. Republican Chris Lee won re-election with 74 percent of the vote last November.
Lee, a married family man, resigned in February amid publicity that he had sent a woman suggestive emails and a revealing photo of himself. The GOP nominated a credible candidate to replace Lee. So did the Democrats. A bomb-throwing Tea Party candidate livened things up. A former Democrat, he was endorsed by the leader of a libertarian Tea Party group and other Tea Partiers splintered.
Medicare myths and political realities
The Democrats found their issue: They attacked relentlessly, claiming that House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s budget plan would dismantle Medicare. The Republican candidate was slow to react.
A key GOP campaign staff member dismissed the concerns of a Washington fundraiser about three weeks before the election. Everything was on course for victory in the special election, he said. The most important issue was jobs and the fundraiser’s job was to send money, not to tell the campaign that it needed to respond to the Democrats’ Medicare charges: “We’ll win,” he said. “All we need from you is to send checks and butt out.” Whoa!
In fairness to that campaign official, I have wanted to say something like that on several occasions. Even in the best of campaigns, with everything going right, armchair quarterbacks – often implying they might close their checkbook – flood the campaign headquarters in the final days. They have all sorts of well meaning suggestions. They have even more criticisms and complaints. The campaign staff is busy following the plan worked out months before and trying to keep the ever-arriving “experts” from distracting the candidate and the candidate’s family. A short fuse is understandable.
But the failure to figure out long before the “advice-givers” arrived that Medicare was taking a toll is a different matter. The campaign kept saying that Medicare was not the first priority of voters. The campaign and candidate stressed jobs. But the campaign’s own research showed the race tightening and gave a reason: Medicare.
Purity unsullied by baser needs
Before the House voted on the Ryan budget plan, with its revamping of Medicare, researchers warned the House and Senate Republicans that the GOP might be handing the Democrats a potent issue. Misleading soundbites would make it easy for Democrats to exploit the Medicare issue. The subtleties of the Ryan position would be difficult to defend. If successful, the Democrats’ attacks could stretch beyond one district in New York and turn the national mood against Republicans. The House Republicans ignored the advice. They listened to Tea Partiers. The Tea Partiers, principled and true to their convictions, demanded that the Republicans stay true, too.
These are the conflicts that elected officials must deal with. They do not get to vote in a black-and-white world. Most of their choices are in shades of gray. Vocal constituents, with their single-minded purpose, can demand a purity unsullied by baser needs.
The first duty of a politician is to get elected. If you do not get elected, you have little chance to affect the direction of the nation. Unless the Republicans can reconcile the conflict between the fierce rigidity of the Tea Parties and the more practical tasks of winning and governing, some Republican candidates, otherwise very electable except for Medicare, will lose in November. They will not return to Washington to affect the direction of the nation. They will not be there for the debate and vote.
Many Tea Partiers have a different perspective. Time after time, they have voted for candidates who say one thing on the campaign trail but vote differently once elected. They are wary of Lucy pulling the football away at the last moment. Others are fixated on a single, overriding issue. Most know that if tax increases are put on the table with spending cuts, it is likely that taxes will go up but nothing will happen to spending. Some want to send a symbolic message. Almost all are genuinely concerned for the country’s future. All are frustrated. But unless they can grow into the leadership position they have waiting for them, the Tea Parties will remain spoilers, outsiders.
Politics is about addition, not subtraction
Recently, I listened to a high ranking Republican official with strong Tea Party connections say that he was tired of RINOs (Republicans-In-Name-Only) who “sell out when they get elected.” He wanted “unwavering conservatives who are willing to vote right for America even when all their friends want something else. Shut down the whole d*** government. That’ll do for a start. Then keep it shut till the b******* do it our way.” Also recently, a man who is active in a Tea Party said that he wanted candidates who would “commit political suicide” rather than stray from orthodox conservatism. “Get rid of the squishy ones,” he said. “That is what the people want.”
Apparently, the people of NY-26 wanted something a bit different. We may argue that the Republican candidate did not counter-attack soon enough. We may suggest that the Democrats engaged in shameless distortion. We may decide that NY-26 has no meaning beyond Western New York. But it does. This is a seminal moment for the Tea Parties and for conservatives. The Republican Party – still led in too many areas by tired, old cliques – needs fresh blood. Will the Tea Parties be able to provide it?
We await the answer to a key question: Who wants to govern? Obviously, as we learn from their own words, some Tea Partiers do not understand the burden of governing. Sadly, some establishment Republicans are inept at governing as well as at campaigning. Governing is harder. Governing requires compromising and a long view. Governing means a willingness to listen and adapt rather than to talk all the time. Governing is for grown-ups.
Will the Tea Parties climb into the arena and shoulder the harder work? Or are they content to be demanding spectators, giving advice and trying to hold elected officials to untenable standards? In other words:
Will the Tea Parties grow up?