January 13, 2011 at 5:46 PM
Opinion Piece in Washington Times, January 12, 2010
In the early fall of 2009, just before I announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate, I was introduced to a number of Washington-based political analysts and journalists. Among the group was Stuart Rothenberg, writer of the Rothenberg Political Report, a classic “inside the Beltway” publication targeted at those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around national politics. His acerbic comments regarding my candidacy in the months that followed reveal the enormous chasm that separates the real world from Washington.
I presented myself to Mr. Rothenberg as a major-party candidate (Republican) with no interest in formulating my views to appeal to sufficient numbers of voters to achieve an electoral majority. My strategy, if you could call it that, involved running on a set of core beliefs, regardless of whether such a philosophy would produce a victory.
Contempt of the political game, as it has been played for generations, instantly qualified me as a laughingstock in Mr. Rothenberg’s eyes. Although I never met him again, he regularly dashed off barbs about me in his reporting, and just recently he dubbed me “the Cockiest Candidate of 2010.” In giving me this dubious distinction, he noted that I “had no experience in politics yet figured he knew everything and was smarter than anyone else in the room.”
To be clear, I admitted to Mr. Rothenberg that my approach would be fraught with obstacles and would be unlikely to succeed. In other circles, such a commitment would elicit grudging respect. But for Mr. Rothenberg, it was simply evidence of my arrogance. Because commitment to politically unpalatable principles is so rare in Washington, it’s no wonder Mr. Rothenberg was shocked by it.
This is how the game works in big-time politics: A potential candidate hires a polling firm to create a strategically written and scientifically executed poll to discover the buzzwords and simple campaign themes that “resonate” among voters. Consultants then boil down the poll results to a few “winning” message points and strategies. At that point, the modern candidate simply hammers away again and again at those sound bites. Winners are those who stay “on message” while knocking their opponents “off message.” It is of little consequence to the professionals that this process produces the kind of vacuous, unprincipled leaders who have brought our country to the doorstep of economic ruin.
I told Mr. Rothenberg that I planned on campaigning on economic reality as I saw it and that I would level with voters about how the size and scope of our current government was unsustainable. I would tell them that their benefits would go down and that they would have to make do with less. I would not offer any easy government solutions to combat the economic crisis. The only thing I would offer would be a chance for Americans to regain the economic and personal liberties that once distinguished the United States and permitted us to rise to heights never before attained by any nation.
I planned on telling the American people about the bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare and why both programs would ruin the nation if not overhauled or phased out. When prodded, I acknowledged my “softness” on traditional Republican sawhorses like border security, family values, tax cuts and aggressive foreign policy. (Though I am in favor of lowering taxes, I understand that without spending cuts, such moves are a fraud.)
In other words, I would not run on any of the bankable game plans used by Republicans or Democrats. Mr. Rothenberg asked me if I had seen any polls showing that such a strategy could work. When I told him I hadn’t, he looked at me as if he had discovered some new form of protozoa.
Mr. Rothenberg knows how the game works, but what he didn’t know then and still doesn’t know is that the rules of the game are changing. Though I admit that my campaign skills were less than formidable, I managed to do far better than he would have predicted in his wildest dreams. Despite being matched against far better funded and better known rivals (outspent 10 to 1 in the Republican primary), hamstrung by a low 50 percent name recognition on Election Day in a state that largely missed the Tea Party flood, and ignored by both the local and national political media, I still managed to get more than 23 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican primary. In addition, I won the support of all three Connecticut Tea Party groups, most of the other grass-roots political organizations within the state and had more individual donors than both my opponents combined. Could it be that unpolished honesty has a place in politics?
In retrospect, it wasn’t just me whom Mr. Rothenberg overlooked, but the entire Tea Party movement. I’m sure, back in 2009, he said many similarly dismissive things about the campaigns of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Fortunately, he was wrong. Hopefully, as more and more voters finally get sick of politics as usual, pundits like Mr. Rothenberg will have to find a more honest line of work. After the campaign was over, I had a job to go back to. As a creature of Washington, I doubt Mr. Rothenberg has similar choices.