Political lessons ignored

Sometimes I’m asked, “Where do you get the ideas for your column?” I get the impression that the real question is, “Are you taking all your meds?” But the answer is that some of them are not the result of a mental episode, but instead plagiarized from others. This one comes from Steve Kornacki or his producers on his “Up!” program on MSNBC. I was on a panel that was describing the off-year Virginia elections and the lessons in restraint that tea-party hard-liners might learn if, as the polls show, their guy gets whomped. Their Republican standard-bearer is Ken Cuccinelli, currently the state attorney general and a far-right conservative on economic and environmental issues as well as social ones.

It should have been a GOP cakewalk. The Democrat is Terry McAuliffe, who, to put it gently, has a reputation for being a bit smarmy. He’s very tight with the Clintons and has been a serious fundraiser for them in their various political pursuits — and is expected to be again if Hillary actually makes another run at the presidency. Granted, ginning up campaign money frequently can be unsavory, but McAuliffe also has gotten quite rich with business deals that sometimes have raised ethical questions of their own.

The common refrain one hears constantly in Virginia is the one from voters who say, “I can’t stand either of them.” In fact, one of the major newspapers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has written a remarkable editorial endorsing no one, recommending “None of the Above.”

The question on MSNBC was whether, if the polls showing Cuccinelli losing by a large margin prove to be accurate, would it clip the wings of those on the far right wing, and would they be smart enough to cool their jets.

My impression is that clearly they will not. Look no further than their current demigod, Ted Cruz. Even with the wounds still raw over the GOP’s humiliating efforts to hold the government and economy hostage as a way to defund health reform — a strategy pushed by Sen. Cruz — and even with the evidence that he and they diverted attention away from Obamacare discrediting itself, there was Cruz in Iowa, spinning his loss as somehow a victory, using his notoriety to promote himself as the party’s savior presidential candidate. Lesson learned? Hardly. In fact, Cruz and the others of his ilk promise to double down.

“I think we accomplished a great deal,” he said with a straight face, but if those Republicans who vacillated and compromised had only stuck to whatever it is they’d stick to, we would see, thanks to Cruz’s leadership, “the rise of the grass roots.” What we have, then, is somebody championing the grass roots by using scorched-earth tactics.

So, obviously, the lesson of Virginia won’t take. To be fair, there are some mitigating circumstances: First of all, Cruz was prominent among those who are blamed or exalted, depending on your point of view, for the partial government shutdown. Thousands upon thousands of the federal employees who were out of work live in the northern part of the state, in the D.C. suburbs. They’re not all that thrilled about Republicans these days, moderate or immoderate. Secondly, the current GOP Gov. Robert McDonnell, who was expected to help, is entangled in a personal financial scandal and is under law-enforcement investigation. It’s laid him low, so he’s lying low.

The voters are stuck with a lousy choice. Back in the 1980s, Edwin Edwards, the personification of Louisiana’s “Let the Good Times Roll” culture, ran for governor against Klansman David Duke. Edwards won after supporters plastered bumper stickers everywhere reading: “Vote for the Crook. It’s important.” Edwards ended up going to prison. Virginia’s choice isn’t that stark, but certainly, it won’t produce a lesson for the tea-party faithful, particularly since they’re not interested.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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