Not a good night for Republicans.
It’s hard to say which is worse: Republican Tim Burns’ loss to the Democrat in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District or Rand Paul’s win in the Kentucky Senate Republican primary.
Burns lost in a blowout -- by eight points in a race that Republicans had confidently asserted they would win. PA-12 is white, working class, economically depressed. It’s coal country and hunting country. PA-12 voted for Gore and Kerry over Bush, but for McCain over Obama. The deceased incumbent, Jack Murtha, had been tainted by scandal. The Democratic candidate, Mark Critz, had directed Murtha’s district office.
Republican Burns had grown up in the district and built a business there. Burns espoused the views of the supposedly surging “Tea Party” movement. He carried endorsements from Dick Armey and Sarah Palin. Armey’s FreedomWorks and other out-of-state Tea Party groups backed Burns’s candidacy with money and muscle.
So what went wrong?
Take a look at this Mark Critz ad to see what:
Critz here endorses the John Murtha economic agenda: federal dollars for the district, protectionism, targeted tax credits. It’s not a very good agenda, and aside from Murtha’s dubious, yet prodigious, diet of pork, it has not done much for PA-12. But still, it’s something, offering a plausible basis for Critz to describe himself in his ads as “pro-life, pro-gun and pro-jobs.”
Burns? Take a look at this ad:
In 30 seconds, the word “no” is posted or spoken five times. Burns asked voters to “send a message” about what they oppose: spending, taxes, the Obama health-care plan. But what was he for? How would he address the tough economic conditions of his state and district? Not a word.
Conclusion: bad ideas beat no ideas.
The same pattern exerted itself in Kentucky. Rand Paul’s ideas are very bad ideas indeed -- wacky some might say. Like his father Ron Paul, Rand Paul blames business cycles on the existence of bank credit. He would abolish the Federal Reserve as a first step toward ending most forms of credit altogether.
Yet . . . it’s an idea! And possibly an appealing idea to voters who have recently witnessed their government commit trillions to rescue the banking system from self-inflicted disaster.
Now look at these ads by Paul’s primary challenger, Trey Grayson. Here’s one called “Record”:
Here’s another, “National Defense”:
A third ad boasts of Grayson’s fifth-generation Kentucky ancestry:
View them and then try to answer this question: What exactly would this man do if elected to the U.S. Senate?
Conclusion: crazy agenda beats no agenda.
True, crazy agendas have their limits. In winning Kentucky’s Republican primary, Rand Paul won 206,000 votes. That’s 15,000 votes fewer than the loser of the state’s Democratic primary, and 20,000 votes fewer than the Democratic winner. Not a promising auspice for November.
But the real challenge for November is this:
Facing the worst economic crisis in a generation – by some measures, since the Second World War – where is the Republican prosperity agenda? What would Republicans do to revive economic growth, spur job creation and raise incomes?
Controlling government spending and taxes is, of course, central to any Republican economic plan. Republicans rightly talk about such core issues. But in a recession, those positions must not be ends in themselves -- only means to the end of reviving growth. And voters do care how that end is achieved. Outgoing Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning ended his Senate tenure with a filibuster against the extension of unemployment benefits. PA-12 candidate Burns had mused about abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent national sales tax -- hardly an appealing program in a district where incomes are low and it would constitute a tax hike for many residents.
Campaigning for Mark Critz, Bill Clinton said (no surprise) a very astute thing: politicians must connect votes cast in Washington to lives lived in the district. The Tea Party movement feels no need to do that. In its failed outing last year in the special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey scolded a local newspaper editorial board for its unseemly interest in the district’s “parochial concerns.”
The Republican theory of the 2010 election has been that the party does not need a positive agenda of its own. In this non-presidential election, Republicans need only be the party of “hell no,” incessantly attacking the Obama record. That theory may yet prove correct in November. But it took a nasty knock Tuesday night.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- 10 things you need to know today: August 27, 2014
- In defense of Obama's golfing
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
Subscribe to the Week