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Rand Paul's Victory, Arlen Specter's Defeat, and the Quest for Authenticity

4 years ago
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Voter rage is the reigning cliché emerging from Tea Party favorite Rand Paul's lopsided victory over establishment candidate Trey Grayson in the Kentucky GOP Senate primary. Coupled with the Pennsylvania primary defeat of Arlen Specter -- a very new Democrat but a very old senator -- the Kentucky results suggest that voters are getting ready to storm the castles of power, wielding hoes and pitchforks.

Forgive me from deviating from press-pack orthodoxy, but after covering the Kentucky Senate race, I just do not see things in those monochromatic terms. Paul's campaign speeches avoid the overheated denunciations of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi that are a staple of Republican rhetoric and lack the exaggerated comparisons to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela that are part of Glenn Beck's chalkboard shtick.

An eye surgeon in civilian life, Rand Paul is trying to peddle authenticity along with his dire warnings about federal spending and the national debt. "The one thing about my campaign is that I am not afraid to be not elected," Paul declared as he brandished double negatives at his final pre-primary rally in Bowling Green. "That's what it's going to take: Someone who will tell the truth."

An occupational hazard of on-the-road political reporting is noticing only what you expect to see. (Many TV pundits solve this problem by limiting their campaign travels to the few steps between the green room and the set). After hearing the venom during Tea Party protests in Washington, I was braced to walk a mile through the bile among the crowd at Rand Paul rallies. The problem is -- and maybe I was looking the wrong way or interviewing the wrong people -- I failed to pick up any comments harsher than the weather commentary on Fox News.

What I did detect was an undercurrent of frustration with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the dominant string-puller in Kentucky Republican politics since the mid-1990s. It was McConnell who shoved hapless Republican incumbent Jim Bunning out of the Senate race in favor of Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state and, until Tuesday, the GOP's leading young man in a hurry. Cynical maneuvers like these leave scars. As Louisville attorney and a conservative activist Jim Milliman said before the primary: "Trey Grayson talks in platitudes. I think McConnell tells him what to say."

It is easy to combine Kentucky with Specter's defeat (and the failure of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln to avoid a run-off election) to produce the front-page headline in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal: "Primary Voters Rebuke Parties." But this shorthand (and I do not envy headline writers on deadline) fails to capture what voters in both parties are actually rebelling against. What has been happening in American politics beginning with last November's elections is something more subtle and (surprise!) more hopeful than irrational anger against all incumbents and elites.

The bipartisan voter rebellion is against political cynicism and entitlement. Think of Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, whose 30-year Senate career has been a tribute to weather vane verities of self-preservation. When Specter's seniority and Judiciary Committee chairmanship were in jeopardy under George W. Bush, this legendary survivor (until Tuesday) was a loyal Republican. When he calculated he could not win a GOP primary, Specter abruptly became a loyal Democrat last year. About the only enduring principle of Specter's chameleon career is that when he makes a political deal with an incumbent president (Bush or Obama), he stays bought.

Obama's embrace of Specter (and his promises of primary support and fundraising help) set the president up for an embarrassing rebuke when Joe Sestak won Tuesday's primary. The White House undoubtedly justifies its Faustian bargain with Specter as a small price to pay for a desperately needed Senate vote. But while the Washington political community respects the cleverness of Rahm Emanuel-style gamesmanship, voters tend to view such soulless maneuvers (like the flagrant Nebraska Medicaid kickback needed to pass health care reform) as a symbol of Obama's hypocrisy.

Obama's filibuster-proof Senate majority (and the importance of Specter's vote) evaporated in January when Democrat Martha Coakley lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to Scott Brown. While other factors contributed to Coakley's humiliation at the polls, her strategy was built around an ill-concealed disdain for ordinary voters. As the Boston Globe wrote about Coakley a week before the election, "Aware that she has little time for the hand-shaking and baby-kissing of a standard political campaign, she has focused instead on rallying key political leaders, Democratic activists and union organizers" That was the article in which Coakley sealed her doom -- and underscored her sense of entitlement -- by recoiling at the thought of wasting time talking to ordinary voters: "Standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?"

Last November's elections were so carefully parsed for partisan meaning that few noticed how cynicism struck out. In a Republican battle in upstate New York that offered an early preview of the Kentucky Senate race, Conservative Party challenger Doug Hoffman -- an early Tea Party favorite -- forced moderate GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava out of the race for a vacant House seat. (Scozzafava endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, who beat Hoffman). A major theme of Hoffman's challenge to Scozzafava was that she had been cynically selected by a cabal of GOP county chairman who thought that a centrist was more likely to win the seat than a conservative.

In New Jersey, unpopular Gov. Jon Corzine, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, tried and failed to use his Wall Street wealth to bury Republican Chris Christie under an avalanche of attack ads (including one that charged the hefty GOP candidate with "throwing his weight around"). And across the Hudson River, New York's billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who had shredded the city's term limits law to retain power, won re-election by only 50,000 votes, even though he outspent his near-invisible Democratic challenger by $100 million.

The hopeful message buried in all these election returns is that voters are tired of being toyed with. The problems afflicting America are too grave to tolerate the cynical, cling-to-power-at-all-costs cynicism of Arlen Specter and other Capitol Hill Machiavellis. The choices voters make in their desperate quest for authenticity are not always wise or well grounded in reality. But politicians and pundits -- obsessively calculating partisan advantage like Scrooge counted shillings -- will ignore at their own peril the stirrings of idealism among voters in both parties.

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