Even before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.
Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:
He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s.
Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.
Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.
Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.
The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.
Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.
Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”
I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.