David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Dan Liljenquist's Wishful Thinking
If Orrin Hatch weren't a great, conservative US Senator, I'd happily vote for Dan Liljenquist next week. Utah's controversial caucus and convention system worked well in this case; if there must be a primary, these two should be in it. Liljenquist is by far the best of Hatch's Republican challengers this year, but his campaign still prefers wishful thinking to reality on too many points.
As Senator Orrin Hatch's opponent in the June 26 Republican primary, Dan Liljenquist is the official darling du jour of the right wing's anybody-but-Hatch contingent. He seems like a decent guy. If elected, I suspect he would, with experience, make a competent, conservative US Senator. In fact, I think he'd be good enough at it by the end of his first term that he would vex many of his present supporters, with whom competent incumbency itself is an almost insurmountable liability. They don't care for legislators who compromise their way to a partial conservative victory, when they could have achieved utter defeat, had they simply been stubborn enough.
Any successful political campaign is built on abundant optimism. Liljenquist has plenty. For most of the campaign he has also publicly avoided the childish Hatch-hatred which many of his partisans indulge. That's good. If there's anything we need in our politics, in Utah or the nation, it's more adults.
When he's talking about policy areas he knows well, he sounds intelligent, articulate, and sincere; we never get too much of those, either. After listening to him literally for hours, I don't think this is just the politician's gift of being able to believe whatever you're saying to please the voters at the moment. I'm hardly infallible, but I've seen many candidates come and go. Liljenquist sounds good to me -- when he's discussing specific policies.
Unfortunately, when he talks about his opponent or how the US Senate works, he reminds me of a song title that is almost as old as he looks: "The King of Wishful Thinking" (1990, by a British band, Go West). He has a tighter grip on reality than the other challengers, whom he defeated at convention. But the principal weakness of his candidacy -- except, perhaps, the prominence of toxic bedfellows like FreedomWorks -- is wishful thinking. Maybe this is why he struggles with older voters, who have a better sense of how government actually works.
Here are several examples:
Wishful Thinking: Statesmanship, not Politics
Many candidates, especially non-incumbents, like to think they're statemen, not politicians. Whatever I do is statemanship, you see, because I do it according to true principles and for the good of the country. Whatever my opponents do is politics, done for their own and their special interests' benefit. Obviously, if they stuck to their principles, and if their motive were the good of the country, they'd agree with me, right?
Wrong. Politics is how legislative things are accomplished in Washington -- the good things and the bad things. Listen to Dan Liljenquist describe his work on pension reform in Utah. Whether or not he is a statesman, that is the work of a skilled, hard-working, and generally promising politician.
Wishful Thinking: David v. Goliath's Outside Money
Liljenquist and his supporters see the contest with Senator Hatch as a David-and-Goliath match, because Hatch is spending so much money on his campaign, including out-of-state money, which only compounds the villainy. You have to wear blinders to embrace this wishful thinking. Liljenquist's campaign itself may be spending a lot less, but it's benefiting from a trainload of out-of-state money, which FreedomWorks is pouring into its aggressive but fraudulent anti-Hatch mailers and ads, among other things. In a sense, Liljenquist benefited from every other challenger's campaign, too, before the convention, because their shared theme was that Orrin Hatch should be retired.
To his credit, Liljenquist's campaign itself has not wallowed in the gutter with FreedomWorks, but I haven't heard it renouncing them, either, which might have been wise. I've heard from voters who don't know my preferences that one good look at FreedomWorks' materials is enough to push them to Hatch.
Wishful Thinking: He Can Do the Job without Living in Washington
I've heard Liljenquist say repeatedly that, if elected, he won't live in Washington. He'll commute from Utah, go to church with his family on Sundays, attend his kids' soccer games, commune regularly with the Utah Legislature, etc. -- all while the Senate is in session. Assuming, again, that he's sincere, not just convinced that 50.1% of voters are gullible, this is wishful thinking. He doesn't understand an effective US Senator's schedule and workload.
Wishful Thinking: It's All About the Money
Ask a communication expert what's wrong with Congress (or almost anything else), and the answer will have something to do with poor communication. Dan Liljenquist is an expert in finance. He doesn't wait for you to ask before telling you it's all about money -- that is, out-of-control federal spending and the resulting debt. These are huge problems, of course. But the US Senate does a great deal more than spend money. Senator Hatch's greatest legacy (at least so far) consists of strong conservative judges in the federal judiciary, most notably the US Supreme Court. This is only indirectly related to spending. In this campaign Hatch is saying more about his potential chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee than his enormous past influence on the federal judiciary, probably because that's what moves voters this year. But he's not fixated on fiscal matters, as Liljenquist seems to be.
Wishful Thinking: US Senators Should Take Counsel from State Legislatures
Liljenquist has also criticized Hatch for failing to report to and seek counsel from the Utah Legislature, as he thinks a US Senator should. This is wishful thinking. The Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution made US Senators accountable directly to the voters, not to state legislatures. Some on the right want that amendment to go away. I am less sanguine; I do not trust the Utah legislature to choose my US Senators.
In any case, for the foreseeable future, the direct election of senators is the constitutional law of the land. It makes little sense to act as if it were not.
Wishful Thinking: Hatch Is to Blame for Every Bad Thing Washington Has Done for 35 Years
Liljenquist and his supporters speak as if Hatch were to blame for everything bad that Washington has done in the last 35 years, since he took office. This came up repeatedly in the KSL debate last Friday. I think the wishful thinking here actually relates to the voters, whom the Liljenquist campaign must wish were a little daft. For many of those years, Republicans were in the minority in at least one house of Congress -- something not seen recently in the Utah Legislature. Even when Republicans were in the majority, there was never a fiscally conservative majority -- a point totally lost on Liljenquist in last week's debate. Even had he served two or three terms in the Utah Legislature, instead of just one, he would never have experienced a time when Republicans didn't have a veto-proof supermajority there. He would never have encountered a Democratic governor, either. For these and other reasons, the legislative culture in Washington is vastly different and far more hostile than in Utah, where virtually everything bad that happens (at least legislatively) can reasonably be blamed on the Republicans.
Wishful Thinking: Seniority and Experience Are Not Important
Challengers running against incumbents wishfully tell themselves and the voters that experience and seniority don't matter much. These days, the right wing in Utah will even tell you that the seniority system in the US Senate is a bad thing. It's possible to imagine other ways to make committee assignments and determine committee leadership, but so far I haven't heard any suggested alternatives which would insure that Senators with long experience in key policy areas are the ones who lead in those areas.
Even at the local level, such as on a city council, the learning curve for a new legislator is significant. Experience confers considerable advantages in knowledge, judgment, and the ability to get work done within the existing mechanisms of governmment. Yet much of the Tea Party and much of the rest of Utah's right wing seem to prefer legislators who are unburdened by experience and extensive knowledge -- as if having just the right principles were the only qualification for excellent service as a legislator. This wishful thinking is outright dangerous.
Summer Is for Baseball Analogies
Last Friday's radio debate was more of a debate than these things usually are. I thought Senator Hatch did a little better than he did at a debate I attended before the state convention, and Dan Liljenquist slipped a little.
When Liljenquist talks about policy, he's often impressive, and I generally agree with him. For example, on Friday he was excellent on immigration reform. But on Hatch's record and how the US Senate works, he went from wishful before to bellicose on Friday, and he seemed indifferent to legislative history and process. He took a few liberties with the facts, too, but still not nearly as badly as FreedomWorks has done.
As I listened, I kept thinking that Liljenquist sounded like a baseball player who hit a few extra-base hits in AA ball, and now thinks he belongs on the major league All-Star team -- before he's ever seen a major league curve ball, let alone hit one. His legislative achievements in Utah, though significant, were in the context of a permanent, veto-proof Republican and conservative majority. Much of what he has opposed (and now apparently despises) in Orrin Hatch is what makes Hatch effective as a conservative in a far more hostile environment -- skills and attributes Liljenquist will have to acquire, if he wins.
In case you missed it, I'm not a big fan of wishful thinking in my elected officials. I'm glad Orrin Hatch is running one more time.
Copyright 2012 by David Rodeback.