How to Fail in Politics 101 

The tactic of dissing one’s own party leaders or principles is a sure-fire way of shrinking one’s base.

Alison Lundergan Grimes; Harold Ford Jr.

Jackson Baker

Alison Lundergan Grimes; Harold Ford Jr.

Toward the end of his just-concluded campaign for U.S. Senate, Democratic candidate Gordon Ball, son of a moonshiner (that was one of his never-fail best self-descriptions), a self-made multi-millionaire Knoxville lawyer who made his money and his name suing polluters and greedy corporations, altered his presentation in a perplexing way.

To back up: Ball had always been determined, as he put it, to take a broom against the feckless Washington, D.C., power community that he saw, in the original and negative sense of the term, as so much rascal flats. He would fulminate against the major inhabitants of this gone-wrong Potemkin Village, particularly Republican opponent Senator Lamar Alexander, whom he castigated for what was made to sound like an ill-gotten $22 million net worth, including $620,000 reaped from a $1 investment in the now-defunct Knoxville Journal. "A finder's fee," Ball scornfully quoted Alexander.

"If you want to change things in Washington, you've got to change the people," Ball said. And he would name names of those who had to go — Mitch McConnell, the would-be Senate majority leader from Kentucky who was drenched with oil and gas and Koch money and would do nothing but obstruct any modest agenda put forth by Democrats, and Alexander, who opposed minimum wage and women's rights and veterans' rights and so much else, and needed to go home and tend to his garden of greenbacks.

So far, so good, I thought, as I heard all this at a morning stop last week at the IBEW headquarters on Madison. He's coming on as a populist and demonizing the opposition and pitching to his base. But afterward, when we reporters had a chance for some private words with Ball, something he'd said on the road that I'd read in somebody else's coverage kind of chafed at me, not in an ideological sense but in purely practical terms. So I had to ask.

Had Ball actually included on this list of desirable purgees the name of Harry Reid, the bespectacled ex-pugilist from Searchlight, Nevada, who'd risen to become Senate Democratic Majority Leader and who was constantly at battle with Senate Republicans determined to filibuster every proposal brought by the Obama administration?

Instead of reading my question as a rhetorical one, maybe even an implied rebuke (What's to gain from attacking your own party leadership?), Ball took what I'd said as a prod. He'd overlooked Reid, whom, in various articles along the trail, he'd said he wouldn't be able to vote for as leader. He apologized for having omitted Reid's name at the IBEW rally and added it back in. "Yes, let's include Harry Reid in there, too. We need to get rid of Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander and Harry Reid!"

It scanned wrong with my sensors, mainly because it diluted Ball's respectably populist message, already nudged a little bit toward that shadowy, ill-defined reform constituency — the Tea Party — that had repudiated Common Core, as had any number of classroom teachers, who disliked the standardized tests and career-binding teacher scores that came with it as heartily as the Tea Party folks hated what they saw as governmental over-reach.

These were the folks who contained so much of the undecided vote that Ball needed in order to make up the gap shown in the final Middle Tennessee State University poll — reputedly showing Alexander (the same Alexander who netted only 49 percent of the Republican primary vote in August) with 42 percent, Ball with 26, and the rest, 32 percent, undecided. "I've got to get almost all that undecided," Ball would tell me on election eve.

We can all do the math and see how much of it would have had to break Ball's way — and, since this is being read after the election, we can now see for ourselves how much of it did break toward the challenger.

Something tells me that the Knoxville Democrat's rhetorical throwing of his current party leader, Reid, on the same trash heap as Alexander and McConnell was worth very little to his hopes and, indeed, was likely counter-productive.

I am sure there are extant studies on the efficacy of this kind of acrobatic tactic, in which a candidate separates from his party, or from what he perceives as the unpopular national version of it, in hopes of ultimately gaining both re-entry into his party's good graces and --more importantly -- immunity from its adversaries.

Maybe even their toleration. Heck, maybe even their votes!

If there aren't such studies, there should be, and, meanwhile, with a conviction based entirely on my intuitive sense, coupled with case after case of actual results. I say this sheep-in-wolf's-clothing maneuver is a loser, always.

First, there is no reason to believe, literally no reason, that a disparagement of some symbolic party colleague whom one's political adversary has made an arch villain will gain a single vote for oneself. Those who would agree with the disparagement are already on the other side, for that and any number of other assorted reasons.

It's just a guess, but I believe a candidate would do equally well with the opposition voter by heaping rhapsodic praise on the party colleague whom the other guys have demonized. A wash, is my guess.

On the other hand, he would certainly get better results with his own party base and ideological constituency with the latter course, which might have the salvific effect of rousing them to solidarity and sincere effort on one's behalf.

Another case in point — speaking of McConnell — is that of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky who, for much of the past year, had been running neck-and-neck with the venerable GOP Senate leader.

Here of late, however, McConnell seemed to be pulling away a bit, and either as partial cause or maybe just as an objective correlative to that fact, Grimes has apparently tried to join McConnell on the anti-Obama bandwagon, refusing four times in a brief televised performance to say she had voted for Obama for president.

As Memphis Leftwing Cracker blogger Steve Steffens noted with some dismay, along with fellow Democratic blogger Rick Maynard, Grimes had demonstrably been a convention delegate of Obama's — something requiring a positive embrace and avowal of a candidate on a relatively public scale. And now she was denying him? Thinking ... what?

"This is why we can't have nice things," Steffens and Maynard both concluded.

I am one who thinks current Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron is doing good work, and I always thought he was a conscientious, effective state Senator, but, while I recognized the head of steam Republican Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump had going in the 8th District congressional race of 2010, I thought Herron, a longtime fixture in the area,  was competitive until he began pandering to what he perceived as his home folks' animus against national Democrats, and ended up repudiating the then-Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, whom he vowed to vote against.

Same arithmetic as with all other such cases: No gain from the opposition camp, while there is a palpable unease in one's own party ranks, resulting in resentment, resignation, and fatalism that probably cost votes.

And need we mention the 2006 U.S. Senate race, in which the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Harold Ford Jr., made a concerted effort to dissociate himself not only from national party luminaries but from established party talking points on issues such as gay rights, a Draconian bankruptcy bill, opposition to the war in Iraq, and even from the party label itself.

At his headquarters opening in Memphis in 2006, he declaimed at one point, "I'm not a Democrat running up to Washington yelling 'Democrat, Democrat, Democrat!"

And sure enough, Ford, who in other ways was running what may have been the last truly competitive statewide Democratic race against a Republican, lost to Republican Bob Corker and never got a chance to go up thataway yelling "Democrat, Democrat, Democrat" or "Blue Dog, Blue Dog, Blue Dog" or whatever other mutated and minimized form of party identity he was willing to own up to. 

Maybe "Wall Street, Wall Street, Wall Street"? That's where he works today, having thus far failed to rekindle popular excitement for another political candidacy, here, there, or anywhere.

Radical thought: Maybe it actually pays to embrace one's political party, its principles, and its personnel. Maybe that's how you get elected.

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