Today’s Courier Herald Column:
One of the benefits of managing a blog is that there is an opportunity to get involved in the issues of the day and try to grind down to the nuts and bolts of an issue. It’s an ongoing way to satisfy the inner policy wonk.
One of the benefits of accepting an invitation to drive from Atlanta to Vidalia and moderate a debate on a Monday night is that it gets the writer out from behind a keyboard for a few hours and meet the voters and the candidate where they actually are.
After 90 minutes of debate, what we are reminded of is that where the candidates are is in campaign season. To be more specific, it is partisan primary campaign season. Partisan primaries are about talking points and lining up the base behind you and your “ideas”. And yes, “ideas” generally deserve air quotes when speaking of partisan primaries. Original ideas are not allowed from a well disciplined candidate. Talking points are used for a reason.
Primary voters generally do not want to be educated. They want their beliefs affirmed. They need to know that they are selecting the candidate that will then represent their views once elected. Going off message with unique solutions may look like leadership to a policy wonk who believes the system is broken and new ideas are needed. To a primary voter, new ideas plant seeds of skepticism and doubt.
The candidates on Monday night played it safe. Facing a crowd composed mostly of Republican and TEA Party activists, the answers given by candidates on most policy questions showed little difference in approach or philosophy. Given that only one has held elective office, it was not a debate that focused on past voting records to project future results. Most candidates are starting with a blank sheet of paper, and they have filled it with similar, tried and true Republican positions.
They are for regulatory and tax reform, with a proclivity toward the FairTax. They believe education is an issue that is the responsibility of the states. All want the President’s health care reform repealed. They are for cutting spending but for federal funding of the Port of Savannah. Not surprisingly, none cared to support Agenda 21, whatever that actually is. And despite the fact that all acknowledged that the budget will not be balanced anytime soon, none will support a vote to increase the debt ceiling.
Individually, each answer was generally what a primary voter wants to hear. Each candidate’s campaign manager and consultant had to be pleased. But taken together, a picture is easily painted that portends future trouble for Speaker Boehner or any other person who would try to lead the next Congress, regardless of their partisan roots.
Most districts are now drawn to be either Republican or Democrat. Georgia 12 is now designed to be a Republican district, despite the fact that is currently has John Barrow – a Democrat – as the incumbent. Candidates in the primary aren’t worried about independent voters. Each understands they must get to a general election before they need to feign any concern if their positions will attract independents, or stand up to a logical counter attack from an opponent of the other party.
Barrow can easily make an issue out of the contradiction that each candidate will ask for federal funding to expand Savannah’s port, but not vote to fund the deficit that each acknowledges will be part of the fiscal picture for at least the immediate future.
That paradox will not matter in a July primary where roughly 10% of voters will bother to vote. Those that do are assumed to be looking for partisan purity. And that is what the candidates are offering. But they are also locking into hard line positions that will make it difficult for those who will ultimately govern to deliver on contradictory promises made.
It is unfortunate, as most of the candidates have some history of working with prominent Democrats in their past as part of the pragmatism of everyday life that has led them to a point where they are positioned for a Congressional run. Each is running from that past or downplaying it as much as possible. They’re all Republican, all the time from now until the end of July, and for two of them, likely until a mid-August runoff.
It will please the partisans. Policy wonks looking for solutions will likely remain frustrated.