Before there was a Karl Rove or a James Carville there was John Sears. A Republican political consultant closely identified with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Sears plays a central role in a fascinating new book – The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – by the great chronicler of the modern conservative movement Rick Perlstein.
Sears “brilliantly stewarded Ronald Reagan’s run from near impossibility to a dead heat” with President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, Perlstein writes. Reagan ultimately fell just short of grabbing the GOP nomination from the unelected Ford. It was the closest presidential contest since 1948. Had just a couple of things broken Reagan’s way he might well have won and, who knows, made it to the Oval Office four years earlier than he finally did.
Sears was a major force in that campaign. Reporters loved him for his candor and insight. Rivals, Republicans included, frequently snipped at him because he often was the smartest guy in the room and wasn’t shy about showing it.
Reagan once joked to journalist Theodore White that, “There was a feeling that I was just kind of a spokesman for John Sears.” Sears got canned during Reagan’s 1980 campaign when he clashed with the candidate’s California brain trust, but since he was a real pro he simply said it was Reagan’s right to get rid of him. Sears later worked as an analyst for NBC News.
Since Labor Day is now history and the kids are back in school, we can turn our gaze to elections that are now just two months away. Heading into the home stretch for Campaign 2014 there are some smart words from John Sears that are worth pondering for all candidates who want to win in November.
Sears’ trademark saying, Perlstein writes, was “politics is motion.” In other words, “When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you are winning. When your opponent has to catch up with one of your moves, he is losing.” Politics is motion. Let’s apply this notion to the race for governor in Idaho.
Electing an Idaho Governor
If you measure the common metrics of politics – the strength of the economy, support for education, party unity among them – the incumbent governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter, ought to be in a world of hurt in 2014. Otter, a fixture of Idaho politics since the 1970’s, has been in the middle of a nasty intraparty feud that produced a virtually unknown challenger who gave him a run for his money in the May primary. The challenger ended up beating the two-term incumbent in some of Idaho’s largest counties, including Otter’s home base of Canyon County. Those party wounds are likely scabbing over as the election nears, but some deeply disenchanted Tea Party-type Republicans still say they would like to “punish” the governor for, among other things, embracing a state-based health care exchange. Many who have know him for years find it amazing that Butch can be attacked as being too liberal, but such is the state of Republican politics these days.
At the same time a brace of less-than-good news about education funding, a failed education reform initiative, Idaho personal income declines, and a botched prison privatization effort should further put Otter on the defensive. When it comes to funding schools and measuring personal income, it used to be said that “Idaho is the Mississippi of the West.” That can now be amended to “Idaho is Mississippi.” None of this should help the incumbent, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting much either.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recently endorsed Otter for keeping Idaho taxes and spending low, which is also the flip side of Idaho’s Mississippi-like commitment to educational funding. To date the political discussion of school funding and the economy in Idaho has largely avoided the fact that while state spending on education has been shrinking in recent years due to a stingy state legislature and the governor, property taxpayers are paying more-and-more to keep the lights on at the school house. The need to pass supplemental levies at the local level, which is now virtually routine in many districts often means that the poorest school districts in Idaho just get poorer. The recent failure of a levy in Lapwai means kids in that district will get PE classes online. Nearly 40 Idaho school districts now operate only four days a week.
Another recent study, as reported by the Associated Press, indicates that “Idaho residents have among the lowest personal incomes in the nation but spend a higher percentage of their money on food, housing and other essentials compared with most others, according to data…by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.” Another report on the changing demographics of education in Idaho offered this sobering prediction over the next five years: “The state is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000.” Ouch.
The governor once made funding highway needs the center point of his legislative agenda, but even with an overwhelming GOP majority in the legislature couldn’t bend his own party to advance his priority. Highway funding has virtually disappeared as a political issue. And the governor has to deal with at least one other issue – the political fatigue factor that often attaches to a politician seeking a third consecutive term. A third consecutive gubernatorial term has happened twice before in Idaho, but long ago – first in the early 1930’s and then again in the early 1960’s.
Somewhere in that mix of issues and impressions, amid the studies on incomes and educational support, and complicated by the GOP internal turmoil, there might be a coherent message for a challenger, something like Idaho is off on the wrong track and Otter has had his chance. But if politics is motion, as John Sears would say, the motion at this post-Labor Day moment still seems very much with the incumbent.
His liabilities notwithstanding, including a third-party challenger coming from the far, far right who could take five of more percentage points in the general election presumably at Otter’s expense, the Idaho governor’s race seems to be unfolding just the way Butch Otter and his supporters might have hoped it would. The old tried-and-true Republican playbook, the corners tattered and worn, is opening up as it always has, and as it so very predictably would, against Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff.
The state’s big business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI), which actually supported development of a state-based health insurance exchange, as did Gov. Otter, is on television attacking Balukoff for being a Obamacare loving “liberal,” a word as bad in red states today as Communist was in the 1950’s. Balukoff says he voted for Mitt Romney last time, but no matter. IACI also takes the Democrat to task for supporting tax increases. Those taxes, of course, are the regular levies that Boise School District patrons regularly pass in an effort to keep their schools among the best the country. Balukoff supported those efforts as a long-time member of the school board, but no matter.
The Farm Bureau, which of course doesn’t endorse candidates, has weighed in saying the Democrat doesn’t understand rural Idaho. Soon Balukoff will be giving away Idaho’s water and going door-to-door picking up guns. It may be an old and tattered political playbook that is being dusted off one more time, but it has worked time and again in Idaho and given a tepid challenge there is little reason to change a winning formula.
Politics is Motion
Meanwhile, the Otter campaign is on the air with a entirely positive commercial touting an improving Idaho economy and a governor that stands up to the feds. It almost reminds me of a Cecil Andrus spot in 1990, including the line that “Idaho is a great place to live, work and raise a family.” It’s morning in Idaho. Otter can take the high road when he has others more than willing to take the low.
Balukoff’s task in this race – any Democrat’s task – is to say something coherent and meaningful about the shortcomings of Otter’s eight years as governor – and there is plenty of raw material – and then present a picture of what a better future might involve. He doesn’t need to be nasty, but he does need to be pointed and specific. When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you’re winning. Politics is motion and time is short for a challenger to define the Idaho race in a way that just might make it competitive. Balukoff’s campaign so far seems very much like the campaigns that have come up short for Democrats for the last 20 years – too timid and ironically too conservative.
History tells us that generals always want to fight the last war. Politicians want to run the last campaign. You can often do that as an incumbent, but you don’t beat an incumbent, particularly an incumbent Republican in a state like Idaho, by doing what hasn’t worked before. To make it a race the challenger needs to make it a real choice for voters. You start framing the choice by establishing what the race is about – and its not a health care exchange and Barack Obama – and by taking a few risks.
Right now the Idaho race is about a Republican incumbent without much to brag about against a Democrat from Boise who is being defined as “a liberal.” It is not difficult to predict how that script plays out in November.