With school underway and the general election still two months off, it was the perfect moment for a road trip. So perfect, I scheduled two.
I didn't pack a sack lunch and hop on the big yellow bus as in years long ago, but I did climb into my old red pickup truck, with a mug of Joe in hand, and hit the road -- first to Del City for a Democratic Party pancake breakfast, then to Skiatook for a Town Hall meeting with Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.
Two Oklahoma towns.
Two different events.
Two totally different worlds.
The Red State-Blue State divide in America is well documented, and so is Oklahoma's place in the matrix. More Oklahoma voters are registered as Democrats, but they often don't vote that way. A majority in all 77 counties voted for John McCain two years ago -- 11 consecutive presidential elections in which Oklahoma gave more votes to the GOP presidential nominee.
And conventional wisdom suggests November's mid-term elections will be even worse for Democrats, both nationally and in Oklahoma, a political bloodbath of Biblical proportions (or at least the 1994 Republican revolution).
What was most surprising during my field trips was how different the two events felt: Given their gloomy poll numbers, the Democratic gathering should have more closely resembled a wake, if not a funeral. And with Coburn's re-election a virtual certainty and with Republicans bullish on their prospects to recapture the governorship, the Coburn Town Hall should have had all the ingredients for a rockin' party.
Instead, the roles seemed reversed. More than 160 Democrats showed up at the Del City Community Center -- the most in the event's 10-year history. Those with whom I visited said they recognized the party was going to lose some down-ballot statewide races (where they didn't field strong candidates) but they were uniformly optimistic about the prospects for hanging onto the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices.
A positive, upbeat group.
By contrast, just based on the tenor of the questions, many of the 100 or so gathered for the Coburn event in the Skiatook First Baptist Church west campus auditorium -- a former grocery store turned modern worship center -- seemed flummoxed by the state of affairs in America, fearful for our future.
I realize these were completely different events. A Town Hall is, by definition, a more subdued, classroom-like event, open to all constituents, all parties, all who want to air grievances or ask pointed questions. And a fund-raising pancake breakfast is typically a more festive occasion, a chance for the party faithful to rally around and get fired up by red-meat rhetoric.
But the 100 or so gathered in Skiatook were clearly Tom Coburn's crowd. Some wanted their photos taken with him. Others just wanted to shake his hand for a job well done. It had something of a tent revival feeling, with more than a few "Amens!" endorsing Coburn's rhetoric flourishes.
Other than one man who asked why Republicans deserved another chance at power -- after racking up massive federal debt when they controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president -- it was common wisdom among the assembled faithful that "they" are leading our nation to destruction and "we" must do whatever it takes to get our country back.
Indeed, some of the questions posed to the senator during the hour-long Town Hall were clearly born of Faux News overload or those preposterous, anti-Obama chain e-mails that Uncle Jim and Aunt Sally pass along.
One man wanted to know if it were true that the President is using taxpayer dollars to relocate thousands of Palestinians to Michigan or Minnesota -- he wasn't sure where -- and provide them housing.
"I can't answer that," Coburn replied.
Another wanted to know if Obama really could bypass the Senate and grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
"It depends on the degree and the definition -- I read some very disturbing things inside Homeland Security last week in terms of not enforcing when they have an opportunity to enforce it," Coburn said, without elaboration.
"But I don't know if those are rumor or fact and my staff is working to find out if that's a fact."
Coburn could have elevated the national dialogue -- rationally responding to the fear whipped up by faux grass roots -- Astroturf -- groups financed by some of the nation's wealthiest interests and helping create a climate for a serious, sober national debate of critical issues -- but he didn't.
He blamed Medicare for the nation's skyrocketing health care costs. He alleged the new national health care plan is aimed at rationing care for seniors. He contended that Roe v. Wade is responsible for a financially shaky Social Security system -- claiming it would be rock-solid solvent had not all those abortions occurred.
And, of course, he denied the existence of global warming, hailed the arrival of 22 nuclear power plants (claiming there is no problem with disposing of waste) and warned ominously that organized labor is preparing to spend $200 million to $300 million to pursue policies that are not in the nation's best interest.
He accused the Obama Administration of failing to secure the nation's borders and selectively enforcing the nation's laws -- all the while ignoring the elephant in his own party's room: Republican corporatists love the current system. They can pay undocumented workers less and treat them as subhuman without fear of reprisal -- few risk being deported just to blow the whistle on oppressive bosses.
In fairness, Coburn had pointed criticism for the GOP -- especially George W. Bush -- and its spending priorities when it controlled the Congress and White House. He said if Republicans are empowered again and fail again, they're finished -- credibility gone.
Coburn portrays himself as an open-minded thinker -- a daily reader of both the conservative Wall Street Journal and liberal New York Times editorial pages. He opines that neither side has a lock on wisdom or truth.
But he also speaks with a certitude that plays well with a large segment of Oklahoma's electorate (even though he often fails to deliver facts to back up his assertions). In fact, Coburn is the state's most popular political figure, according to recent polls -- even ahead of popular outgoing Gov. Brad Henry.
The problem is, Coburn often asserts as fact that which is demonstrably false. Remember his claims about rampant lesbianism in southeastern Oklahoma? He also claims he could easily cut more than $600 billion from the federal budget -- a play to widespread cynicism that government is bloated and corrupt -- but where are the specifics?
Why should he care? He's popular. He commands lots of TV coverage here and nationally. And he can sleep walk through his re-election campaign against Democrat Jim Rogers, a perennial candidate who doesn't raise money and scarcely campaigns.
But something unexpected may be brewing elsewhere on the ballot. Are my two field trip events a hint that conventional wisdom will be turned on its head in November? Or is it just another case of same state, different planet?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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