Monday, May 08, 2006

CD 6 post-mortem: Bachmann ain't beanbag 

A few post-mortems and analysis of the CD-6 race, sitting here late Sunday after a gorgeous weekend day.

Let me begin with the conclusion: Elections are about winning. You may know this by the famous quote of Finley Peter Dunne, "Politics ain't beanbag." But what it means is that it's not meant for the soft at heart; it's damn hard work and it requires one to ignore competing goals at times. I'm an academic and an economic forecaster by training and an ideologue by avocation (and temperment, to be honest with myself) -- trading my free market principles for winning an endorsement would be very hard; I would have to adopt a different identity. Knowing that about myself is part of why I don't run for political office, though the temptation has been there. I'm not willing to shed my skin for what it takes to do that job.

This is my take, after the dust settles, of the Friday night procedural maneuvers and the speculation of delegate-parking by the Bachmann campaign. It seems most likely to me that the procedural fight was a test of strength of the pro-B and anti-B camps. It would not surprise me to learn after the fact that with all those red and green cards flashing -- something we did not see at all on Saturday -- that the Bachmann people wanted that vote to lose. They most certainly did not want a primary challenge, and the chances of this would have been much higher with a Friday night endorsement with only fifteen minutes for nominations. Likewise, the delegate-parking on Saturday, if true, is certainly a legal activity. I don't really think she needed to do this, as it appears in retrospect that she had strength enough to win this without playing that game. But you don't win elections by thinking "I've got enough". You go for the jugular and you leave nothing to chance. Sleight of hand? Sure, and why not?

Politics ain't beanbag.

It has been evident for some time that the Knoblach and Krinkie strategies were to play for second and hope momentum would build for an anyone-but-Bachmann endorsement battle. In the end, Esmay benefited most from this because the two managed to sully themselves with the mud they threw. Neither gave a compelling reason for his candidacy over Bachmann other than "she can't win" ... while conceding she was leading the delegate count. That Knoblach said after the convention yesterday that
I think the biggest thing was that Esmay cut into my vote in St. Cloud more than I thought he would and that made it more difficult to establish myself as the alternative,
proves he didn't understand the need to create his own compelling story. SD15 had 27 delegates, of which I'm pretty sure he had between 18 and 20. If you need 195, won 60 or so and your main reason for losing is the 7-9 delegates that didn't go with you in SD15 -- a BPOU Esmay used to chair -- you are not focused on winning. You're focused on being a strong second without ever getting around to how you take out the lead dog. "Effective conservative who gets things done" is a Bob Dole line. The classic St. Cloud Republican is a fiscal conservative who nevertheless would get Northstar and a stadium done (but cheap!!), a social conservative who nevertheless would not take a strong stand on gay marriage. He's conservative in rhetoric, but like Dole he's more center than right in the trenches. Jim's a little more conservative than they are, but that's his base and that's not the base of the GOP in the Sixth as he found out.

Esmay was focused, but was simply outgunned. I'm not convinced he wants a future in politics, but you can be sure that if Bachmann loses this race in November there will be an immediate groundswell for bring him back for a second try at the endorsement. He may have been played by the delegate-parking trick a little bit; he certainly was happy with his first-round showing and thought he'd go up the next round. But in the end he was the second-happiest candidate on the stage when Bachmann was endorsed, and he did nothing to damage his character.

I was never seated as an alternate, and if I was I would have struggled with the choice between Esmay and Krinkie. I said last November after the SD51 debate that he was the first politician to remind me of Gingrich since Newt left the political stage (Tom Colburn is getting there), and I was always a big Gingrich fan. He looked yesterday afternoon like a man who needed a friend, and luckily it appears he found some. I will drive the bus for the Krinkie for Speaker campaign. But his case for representative lost the sharpness he had last fall. As Bachmann's delegate count piled up and the slinging from both Bachmann and Knoblach gained strength, he seemed more focused and making sure his fiscal conservative reputation was maintained than he was in fighting back for delegates. I wrote about his anger at the SD15 meeting and that I doubted it played well. I heard it happened elsewhere too. I hate to say this, but he needed to let Dr. No sit in a closet for a few months at the Legislature and just focus on the campaign rather than be involved in the stadium and bond bill debate if he wanted to win. It is damned admirable for him to take his job seriously like that, and that's one reason I really like him. But it wasn't gaining him delegates.

Esmay asked at one point in his nomination speech "The choice you need to make is, Which candidate represents what is best about the Republican Party?" That's a great sentiment and it focused people on the high road. Delegates loved his remarks. But for many observers the question is more basic: Which candidate can win? That she rounded up 198 delegates, many of whom came to do that one thing and then left, says she focuses only on winning. You may not like that ideologically, but in the end what you want isn't the nicest candidate or the politest candidate or even the candidate that gives the most inspiring speeches. You want the guy -- or in this case gal -- who will punch the other guy or gal in the neck and win.

Elections are about winning. You want to run a message campaign? Be a Green or a Libertarian. Republican and Democratic nominations are big-boy stuff; weakness is punished mercilessly.

In the end, the one who wanted it most and executed the most focused plan was Michele Bachmann. In that sense, the right person won yesterday. If the center of the party and the center of the district lies to her left, no candidate took that position and focused fire back at her effectively. No doubt the DFL and the disgruntled will now take that shot. No doubt some are going to make accusations about her rough-and-tumble behind the scenes or about expense forms, or her vantage point for some rally. And no doubt money from outside the district will come in on both sides. But if the DFL wants to take my advice, it would be to be prepared for war. Assuming your message is the center of the district political spectrum has been tried already here, and tonight there are three guys who can tell you that that alone is just beanbag. And Bachmann ain't beanbag.