Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Peggy And Karl Could Learn From Scott Stringer

What Peggy and Karl Could Learn From Scott Stringer (If They Cared)

Peggy Noonan has dipped her aggrieved pen into her special well of outrage and come up with "So God Made A Fawner"  a riff on the Super Bowl Dodge Truck/Paul Harvey commercial, and the joint Clinton/Obama 60 Minutes interview by Steve Kroft.

Restrain your sense of surprise; she loves the Paul Harvey ad, so full of simple conservative values like faith and family and solid GOP voters.  And Kroft?  She called his interview “shameful.”  And, when that wasn’t good enough, she added “scandalous.”  For good measure, she used the phrase “puppy excrement.”

I guess she didn’t like it?  Kroft’s sin was that he didn’t blister the Barack and Hillary buddy show the way John McCain or Ted Cruz would have. That was Kroft's job, to carry Noonan's grievances into the room, and he failed.

Of course she is right about the interview.  It was a softball, just as was Bob Schieffer’s Mitt Romney interview a few months ago.  But her anger (and the comments it unleashed on the Wall Street Journal forum) show how representative of a certain wing of the Republican Party she has become.  She just hates Obama, and more and more, that animus is her coffee in the morning and her glass of wine at night.  Whatever he does or says, his face, his voice, anything associated with him, prompts splenetic eruptions from her.  The once temperate writer of sunshine for Ronald Reagan can’t curb her own darker urges. 

Meanwhile, back on the GOP farm, another struggle goes on for the “soul” of the party.  On the one side is the Tea Party and Dead Red conservatives, who relentlessly strive for purity.  On the other side are the party professionals, led by the esteemed Karl Rove, who value winning above all. 

Mr. Rove is not operating out a mere sense of altruism, nor is he alone.  The big money contributors are unhappy.  Most of the Suits invest for a return, not out of conviction.  To get that return, in taxpayer dollars, regulatory relief, tax expenditures, subsidies and special interest legislation, they need to win. When the GOP took some of that capital and invested it in an Akin, or a Mourdock, they not only blew chances to take winnable seats, they also damaged the overall GOP “brand” and bungled a chance for a big score.   Imagine, if you will, the sound of popping corks of an excellent vintage that would have greeted a GOP sweep.   

So, Mr. Rove (and the Suits) were not happy. The champagne had to stay on ice.  And the party leadership is not happy.  That has led to some introspection, and what seems to have emerged is three distinct approaches. 

The first is to work harder at rigging the next election, hence the maneuverings by GOP-controlled Legislatures in swing states such as Virginia to change the way Electoral votes are awarded.  No more winner take all, instead the votes would be allocated based on who won the Congressional Districts.  The GOP is interested in doing that in every swing state Obama won, a potent weapon with all that Gerrymandering.  For states Romney won, the change would not apply.  And that math, if applied in the last election, would have made Mitt Romney the winner, even though Obama won the popular vote decisively.  Think about that for a moment. 

The second approach is one more tailored to the Bobby Jindals and Marco Rubios.  Stop being the party of “stupid.”  Make good policy arguments that people can understand. Watch your language: try a little more sensitivity as to how something might be heard by women.  Be more inviting (or at least less openly hostile) to Hispanics. A tiny bit of substance, and a shiny new ribbon on the package. The party is giving that a chance: Rubio will give the GOP response to the State of the Union.

The third is Rove’s and the Suits.  Forget the substance, and forget the policy.  Worry more about appearances, so you can win.  Recruit normal-looking candidates who are disciplined and not inclined to travel down a scary path.  Rove’s American Crossroads is launching the “Conservative Victory Project” with the aim of identifying and rooting out the weird at the primary level, and supporting more mainstream conservatives with ads and other assistance. Mainstream Republican power brokers are lining up as well.  It is not a coincidence that Fox News rehired Rove, while ending their relationship with Dick Morris, and, more interestingly, Sarah Palin.  Fox is all business, and they have an acute ear for what is not working.

“Message change” and particularly Rove’s gambit are not exactly popular with everyone.  There are powerful elements in the Republican Party (particularly among the Teas and the conservative chattering class) that reject it, and people with grand ambitions, like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who will resist it mightily. Paul, by the way, will be giving the Tea Party response to the State of the Union.  In these circles, Rove has been pilloried as a mere operative, not a true believer.  To their way of thinking, the failures of 2012 were a lack of purity, starting at the top of the ticket, with “Moderate Mitt.”

What is interesting is what they are not thinking about.  And that brings me to Scott Stringer.  Who is Scott Stringer?  Well, he’s a middle-sized, middle-aged man, who would have no trouble blending into a crowd.   Currently he is the Manhattan Borough President.  His term as MBP runs out at the end of this year, and he is going to run for New York City Comptroller.  Mr. Stringer had initially aspired to Mayor, but decided Comptroller was a better fit this time around. 

Last week, Mr. Stringer gave his “State Of The Borough Address” and, before you laugh, remember that Manhattan has a greater population than twelve individual states.  We are just a little more tightly packed here. The event was held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the auditorium was packed with local politicians and guests.  Being a junkie, I went, but by the time I got there, there were no seats in the orchestra, and I had to go to the nosebleed section. 

It was a classic of the genre.  There was piped in rock, there was a huge screen on which pictures of Scott were flashed; Scott with constituents, Scott with dogs, Scott with cops. Scott with kids. Scott at seniors rally. Green Scott. Asian Scott. Scott with local dignitaries. Scott cutting ribbon. Scott serving food.  Scott with baby. Scott with wife.  Scott with microphone. Scott with Scott's youth sports league. Scott in MPB office.  Scott doing.

And then live music, and a marvelous personal introduction by Sade Lythcott.  And then Scott emerges, and gives the kind of speech a good local pol would give.  No soaring rhetoric.  He touches every base, thanks, by name, the numerous office holders and aspirants that are in the audience, he spreads around the credit for many initiatives.  He goes through a laundry list of programs and accomplishments; schools, healthy choices, gay rights, immigrant’s rights, domestic violence, affordable housing, all part of a progressive program the likes of which many New Yorkers approve of.  He is applauded, warmly, as he ticks them off.   

Then, he does something that grabs my attention.  He talks about something that is very present in many of our minds--the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.  Blah, Blah, I think.  Another laundry list item and some stupendous public works program.  He announces that his office has been working on a plan to mitigate the damage of future storms.  Up on the screen flashes a map of the East River with projected improvements, as Scott proposes a series of wetlands, parks and greenways to act as buffers from the next big surge. East River Blueway.  Not a cure-all, but small steps.  And people stop, and there is an audible murmur that goes through the audience. 

Is his plan sound?  Will it work? I have no idea, but Scott was thinking about it.  He was thinking about us. Heads nod.  Scott Stringer has just connected in a big way.  

And, if you are looking for a problem with the modern GOP, there it is.  They have lost the connection to all but the true believers.  Now, Peggy Noonan can turn out finely honed hit jobs on Mr. Obama while wishing fervently for a Bourbon Restoration.  And GOP operatives can continue to find ways to jury-rig the system.  And Karl Rove and the Suits can recruit better candidates and stifle those unattractive (but from the heart) utterances that sometimes burst out from the fringes. 

But, once they get past the anger, the tactics, and the optics, they could learn something from Scott Stringer, MBP, and all the other Scott Stringers out there.  Sooner or later, you have to start paying attention to the real problems of real constituents. Because, sooner or later, your constituents are going to be paying attention to whomever is paying attention to them.