Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Cochran's big tent vs. McDaniels' pup tent

Sometimes a political masterstroke proves to be the love child born of desperation.

A few days ago longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi was widely viewed as the old man and the tea, a veteran Republican about to be defeated in the primary runoff by state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who was so far to the ideological right he made Augusto Pinochet look like Barney Frank.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the tea party. Cochran dispatched McDaniel, all but assuring him a seventh term in the Senate. How was this possible, when the ultraconservative radio blah-blah-o-sphere had predicted McDaniel would cruise to victory? Even Sarah Palin, the Madame Defarge of the tea party, had endorsed McDaniel. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, really. For example, Cochran had the good fortune to be running against a complete dolt who had all the political skills of Egypt's deposed Mohamed Morsi.

Cochran had a few obstacles to overcome. The McDaniel camp argued that the senator deserved to be cast into eternal darkness because he had been too good at his job. Well, this is Mississippi, where brain synapses go to die.

As one of the foremost providers of federal money back to Mississippi that paid for roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, sewer treatment plants and airports, Cochran's influence on the appropriations committee steered billions back home and created countless jobs. Yet McDaniel offered voters the irrational, counterintuitive argument that this was a waste of taxpayer money.

In Pinellas County, the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young was sanctified for this sort of pork barrel-stuffing.

In the June 3 primary, McDaniel bested Cochran by fewer than 1,500 votes but failed to crack the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory. That set the stage for the runoff in which Cochran delivered a master class in political organization and coalition-building savvy.

Cochran re-energized his base of voters who might have taken the June 3 primary for granted and failed to vote. But more importantly, he took advantage of Mississippi voting laws that allow Democrats who had not already voted in the earlier primary to cast a ballot in the runoff election.

In essence the runoff became an open bipartisan primary, which Florida in its infinite myopia does not permit. Cochran worked overtime courting black voters, while the McDaniel camp and the right-wing radio cluckers chortled over the fool's errand of it all. Imagine. Black Democrats coming to the aid of an aging, white Republican? Phftt!

It didn't hurt Cochran's rapprochement with his black constituents when McDaniel whined: "It's time to defend our way of life." That is shorthand for, "Hey Betty Lou, is my klan robe back from the dry cleaners yet?"

Now you would think for a party that struggles with an image of being a collection of angry old white guys, the ability of a deep, deep South GOP politician to forge an alliance with black Democrats would represent a golden opportunity for Republicans to demonstrate they are capable of becoming a big-tent party.

Instead the vast right-slime radio fulminators went into full drool, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh sputtering: "I wonder what the campaign slogan was in Mississippi the past couple of days — 'Uncle Toms for Thad'?"

By his race-baiting rant, Limbaugh was suggesting Mississippi blacks are so unsophisticated they were duped into voting for Cochran. They aren't. They weren't. By their votes they assured a seat at the table. They earned access. They flexed a powerful electoral muscle.

It would be nice to think the Republican Party would look at Cochran's improbable victory and his astute politics of inclusion, even if motivated by a survival instinct, and learn a lesson.

Yet too many Republicans quake in fear of not being suitably antediluvian for the tea party's sour tastes and thus risk being subjected to the addled scorn of a bumpkin with access to a microphone.

What should we call Rush Limbaugh and the rest of his little friends in radio's axis of venality? Mississippi Blubbering?

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