A word was dropped from the headline on E. J. Dionne's column yesterday. It should have read: "At Last, a GOP Insurgent." (Published 12/18/1999)
"Insurgent" is one of the loveliest words in the history of a free people. To be insurgent, the dictionary tells us, entails "rising up in opposition to governmental or political authority." To be an insurgent is to be "insubordinate."
If money is the mother's milk of politics, as the legendary California politician Jesse Unruh said, then political insurgency is democracy's heart and soul. Insurgents challenge those who dominate the system to deal with issues they might prefer to ignore. They give voters choices they would not otherwise have.
For the first time in many decades, the Republican Party has an insurgency on its hands in John McCain's challenge to George W. Bush on the power of political money. McCain has finally forced Bush and the Republican leadership to fight back on an issue most Republicans thought they could push aside.
McCain certified himself as a true insurgent, with a little help from moderator Tom Brokaw, during Monday night's debate in Des Moines. When McCain challenged Bush to join him (and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley) in forgoing soft money in next fall's campaign, Bush replied: "I'll be glad to talk about it."
"Want to talk about it any more right now, or do you want to wait?" Brokaw asked. The crowd roared with laughter.
"Sure," Bush replied, and then paused. More laughter. Brokaw nudged Bush mischievously: "We're doing all right. We've got time, Governor."
Finally, Bush answered McCain. "Here's my worry with your plan: It's going to hurt the Republican Party, John, and I'm worried for this reason." McCain tried to interrupt to note that Ronald Reagan won in 1980 without soft money, but Bush plowed on. "The Democrat Party"--why can't Republican politicians call their opposition by its rightful name and add the -ic on the end?--"is really the Democrat Party and the labor unions in America." Bush went on to insist that any campaign reform include "paycheck protection," which would curb the political influence of the unions by making it harder for them to use members' money in elections.
"There better be paycheck protection," Bush said. "Otherwise, our Republican Party and our conservative values don't have a shot."
Several things happened with this statement. First, Bush reminded the nation's labor unions why they are planning to work hard to defeat him if he wins the nomination--no matter how mad they are at the Democrats on trade issue. Bush may be a "compassionate conservative," but he's as fiercely anti-union as any Republican. The unions are passionately opposed to "paycheck protection" and defeated it in a California referendum last year with the overwhelming support of their members.
Second, Bush set McCain up to appeal to the Republican rank-and-file over the heads of their leaders. Do Republican politicians doubt their party's prospects so much that they think they'll get a majority of Americans to vote for them only if they overwhelm the Democrats with money? McCain's reform plan would still leave business groups with an overwhelming financial advantage over labor. And as McCain noted, if Reagan could win without soft money, why is the current crop of Republicans so insecure?
McCain's appeal is flatly to the "country over party" voters, a pretty big constituency, especially among political independents who can vote in the New Hampshire primary. The more Republicans make this a party issue--"Have you ever wondered why all the Democrats support it?" Orrin Hatch asked of McCain's reform bill--the more they underscore McCain's standing as a free-thinker insurgent.
McCain drove home his independence yesterday in New Hampshire by standing with Democrat Bradley to announce a mutual soft-money renunciation pact, by opposing federal ethanol subsidies and by declining to appeal to those of Christian faith and senSsibility when asked who his favorite philosopher was.
Even after Bush listed Jesus Christ as his guide, McCain wouldn't play the game and named Teddy Roosevelt instead. Perhaps McCain remembered Saint Paul's critique in 2 Corinthians of those "who glory in appearance and not in heart." In any event, it was the Republican Roosevelt who declared in 1910 that "the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit."
Of course insurgents lose more often than they win--Teddy Roosevelt lost his insurgent comeback bid in 1912. On the campaign money issue, Bush may well prove he speaks for a majority in his party. McCain can win plenty of nice press notices (the press is usually kind to insurgents) and still lose at the ballot box. But McCain's opponents are finally engaging in a battle on his turf. Win or lose, campaign reform is now a real issue.