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The Conservative Moment
GOP leaders squelched the opportunity offered by the Tea Party, but it’s not too late to get it right.

Sen. Mitch McConnell meets the press (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Neal B. Freeman

Mitch McConnell is a man of his word. He said that he would crush the Tea Party, and he did. He not only got himself renominated in Kentucky, but he helped renominate fellow GOP senators who, like him, had been primaried by tea-party opponents: Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), John Cornyn (Texas), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), and Thad Cochran (Miss.).

Those could turn out to be expensive victories.

I followed the Mississippi campaign from early on. The first thing you notice about Thad Cochran, if you haven’t seen him in a while, is that he’s adopted an old man’s shuffle. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m working on one myself. But it’s not a good look when you’re campaigning at the age of 76 for a six-year term. And then there’s the short-term-memory thing. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans whether you happen to be in Smithtown or Jonesville, but the locals tend to fuss over the distinction.

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Cochran told friends late last year that he was packing it in after 36 years in the Senate. Enough was enough, he said. Then he reversed himself and filed for reelection. He may have been right the first time.

The second thing you notice is how different Mississippi is from her neighbors. I live in north Florida, which is about as far south as you can get. We share a political culture with extra-Atlanta Georgia and much of Alabama, a salutary blend of small-business Republicans and disaffected southern Democrats that produces a rich, red soil. Put it this way: My home county went bigger for Romney-Ryan than did either Romney’s or Ryan’s home counties. We don’t just preach the limited-government gospel. Some of the time, anyway, we practice it.

All of that private-sector buzz stops dead at the Mississippi border, where the dominant economic and political player is your federal (and apparently unlimited) government. Drive down Magnolia Boulevard, any Magnolia Boulevard, and everywhere you look there are government complexes, defense contractors, welfare dispensaries, all of them fueled by a D.C. pipeline serviced diligently over the years by Democrats (James Eastland, John Stennis) and Republicans (Trent Lott, Thad Cochran). Lott is speaking for this bipartisan effort when he explains, “Pork is federal spending north of Memphis.” If the states can be divided between givers and takers, count Mississippi as a taker and, dadgummit, proudly so.

You have probably heard that Cochran ran second in the GOP primary to an obscure state legislator from the Jackson suburbs. That was an upset. Big time. But then the wiliest political operation in the state, Haley Barbour’s, went to Plan B and brought in enough Democrats to put Cochran over the top in a runoff.

Some dust kicked up. There were those who thought it wasn’t right for the Democrats to nominate the candidates for both parties. Others thought it wasn’t right and maybe borderline illegal to toss walking-around money into black precincts in the Delta and center-city Jackson, which benefactions seemed to have had the effect of spiking Cochran’s support in those areas from roughly “none” to roughly “all.”

There was something else that may not have been right. I’m skeptical of the notion that, for 15 bucks a head, you can get large numbers of black Democrats to vote in a Republican primary for an old white guy. Some of those blowout precinct numbers suggest a top-down deal more than store-bought deference to the white power structure. My surmise is that there was a sit-down and that the black leaders didn’t open the conversation by saying: “Mr. Thad, we’re worried sick about the national debt. How can we return to fiscal discipline?” More likely, it was something along the lines of: “Mr. Thad, we understand that you’re in line to chair the Appropriations Committee. Should that blessed event occur, what tangible form might your gratitude take?”   

What we know as a matter of public record is that, for his big finish, the six-term incumbent rolled out his former colleague and current lobbyist-sidekick, Trent Lott, to make the point the candidate might have preferred not to make himself. Said Lott, directly and repeatedly: Cochran’s defeat could cost government jobs. That’s right. In the closing days of a Republican runoff in the deep-red state of Mississippi, the airwaves were filled not with cries of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” but with cries of “Government jobs! Government jobs! Government jobs!”

Now, none of us here at Conspiracy Central is a stickler for doctrinal conservatism, but let’s be clear: It’s time that we checked our ideological coordinates.

To ask where we went wrong.

And to set a corrected course.

Sub specie aeternitatis, it could be said that we went wrong with that first bite of the apple in the garden, or indeed, at almost any point along the bumpy road of the human story. But for the present purpose, let’s throw a dart at the calendar and take a look at the turning point of 1985.

Ronald Reagan had come to the Oval Office in 1981 having promised to a) prosecute more vigorously the Cold War against the Soviets, b) revive what was then diagnosed as a stagflationary economy, and c) push back against an ever-encroaching Leviathan state. History’s preemptory judgment is that he succeeded splendidly on the first two commitments and whiffed on the third.



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