POSTED ON APRIL 21, 2010:
Steep It and Bottle It
GOP lawmakers and candidates need to harness energy built by the Tea Party
Republican Sen. Randy Brogdon's prospects of becoming Oklahoma's next governor are now dim, at best.
If they're not, then GOP chances of recapturing the state's highest office are.
Brogdon's gubernatorial bid was always quixotic -- a little-known, under-funded, ultra (even by Oklahoma's fire-engine red standards) conservative mounting an insurgency campaign against a high-profile, well-financed party insider, current U.S. congresswoman and former lieutenant governor Mary Fallin.
Still, the former Owasso mayor wasn't easily dismissed. There was no doubt he connected with the GOP's most dynamic constituency, the Tea Party. And even though that group represents only a fraction of the Republican crazy-quilt, it would be plenty large enough to wreak havoc in what is traditionally a low-turnout gubernatorial primary.
Unfortunately for Brogdon, the record will reflect that his campaign suffered a fatal, self-inflicted blow before Tax Day 2010 when he became the face of the Wingnut Nation, a collection of Tin Foil Hat misfits who believe an armed citizen's militia is necessary to protect Americans from their federal government.
Brogdon became a national sensation -- and delivered a serious public relations black eye to his home state -- when the Associated Press reported he and the state House's wingnut-in-chief, Republican Charles Key of Oklahoma City, were pondering legislation that would authorize the formation of a paramilitary team of G.I. Joe wannabes.
Even worse for Brogdon: The story revved up less than a week before the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, rekindling horrific memories of decorated Army veteran-turned-militia poster boy Timothy McVeigh's anti-government attack that killed 168 people, including 19 children.
Frankly, the idea of a bunch of knuckleheads running around the state, six-shooters on their hips, waging war against the American government -- our government -- scares the hell out of rational people, even many conservative Republicans who are hardly fans of the feds in general or the current administration in particular.
They might revile Obama, Pelosi and Co., but they dislike the uncertainty of a Third World-like armed uprising even more because it threatens the economic status quo and their unbridled pursuit of capitalist gold.
Brogdon has one hope left: complacency. If GOP primary voters conclude Fallin has it wrapped up and decide to stay home July 27, Brogdon could emerge as a political Lazarus. It would be a dynamite story for journalists such as me, but it would be disastrous for Republicans -- at least in their bid to wrest the governor's mansion away from the Democrats after eight years.
Brogdon's "don't tread on me" rhetoric might fire up his party's fringe, the type of folks who have opposed every progressive advance since before the Civil War, whether Social Security and Medicare or equal protections for minorities and women. But it isn't likely to strike a chord with most Oklahomans who, when choosing their top state officials, tend to be more interested in substantive matters such as schools, highways and public safety.
The bottom line: Even if he somehow pulled a stunning primary upset, it would be a pyrrhic victory, saddling Republicans with a nominee so far out of the mainstream that gubernatorial hopes would be shattered -- and down-ballot prospects put at risk.
The trick for Republicans, both nationally and in Oklahoma, is to harness the teabaggers' energy without being perceived as captives of a political extreme.
Fallin certainly has tried. Just before the health care reform vote, she stood on the U.S. Capitol balcony waving the Tea Party's enduring symbol -- the yellow Gadsden flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan "Don't Tread on Me." Yet, she and other Republican leaders, including state Chair Gary Jones, couldn't run away from Brogdon, Key and the citizens' militia crowd fast enough last week when the story broke -- a clear signal they consider it dangerous for the party and its candidates to be too closely aligned with those openly discussing the possible need for an armed showdown with the U.S. government.
(The truth is, Fallin's never been a favorite of Sooner teabaggers and members of such groups as the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee. They view her as a career politician and a wholly-owned subsidiary of an elite Republican establishment that pays lip service, but never puts into practice the principles of limited government.)
In the Oklahoma Legislature, Republican leaders also have found it difficult to manage their first-ever House and Senate majorities because a burgeoning group of Tea Party sympathizers -- who loosely affiliate under the banner of the Liberty Caucus -- refuses to kowtow to the corporatist leadership and march in lockstep.
In order to get the super-patriots to play along, GOP leaders are forced to give them a platform for some of the most useless, time-wasting legislation imaginable -- much of it designed to assert some specious claim about the state's autonomy and independence from the federal government. Such legislative grandstanding all but guarantees the state will have to spend precious resources mounting an ultimately unwinnable legal defense of a Tenth Amendment or states' rights claim -- or that Oklahoma ends up the butt of national jokes.
Either way, it's costly. Draconian cuts forced by the near-economic depression are crippling essential state services. Wasting money defending loony legal assertions would be criminal. Further, such antics undermine Oklahoma's efforts to attract new businesses and better paying jobs. Can you imagine a successful CEO staking his or her company's future on relocating to or expanding into a state where too many lawmakers are fighting imaginary battles against the federal government rather than solving real problems?
Last but not least, there's something else that deserves our attention: Is the anti-government rhetoric amplified by some of the state's elected officials perilously close to becoming the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater? It's one thing to fiercely but calmly engage in reasoned debate about the important public policy issues of the day. It's quite another to suggest that armed rebellion might be required to settle political differences.
As state Sen. Andrew Rice, an Oklahoma City Democrat whose brother perished in the World Trade Center in the 9/11 attacks, put it, "All elected officials have a tremendous responsibility to be careful with the words we choose to use in public.
"At a time when more and more people are using words that carry violent connotations to express what may be legitimate frustrations with government policies, you would hope that elected officials would refrain from feeding into that frenzy."
The vast majority of Americans aren't likely to take such rhetoric seriously. But it only takes one Timothy McVeigh, whose fear, anger and paranoia is stoked to the breaking point, to unleash a deadly fury.
amilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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