Pella, Iowa — Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s whimsical presidential campaign is anchored by one key constituency: insomniacs. The Michigan Republican, who launched an improbable White House bid in July, can credit his (scant) national profile to the viewers of Red Eye, Greg Gutfeld’s snarky 3 a.m. talk show on the Fox News Channel.
Red Eye may be an obscure fiefdom in Rupert Murdoch’s empire, but the 60-minute broadcast has a cult following among night owls. These past few years, McCotter has become a frequent guest, charming the hipster panelists with his droll observations. At first, he was a curiosity — a balding, unsmiling Ichabod Crane. Eventually, as Gutfeld concluded that McCotter’s mumbling, sweater-clad persona was authentic, the congressman became a regular.
A presidential campaign, if only for the giggles, was bound to follow. This spring, Gutfeld began to beg McCotter to run. “In my mind, he is one of the few pols who seem less interested in impressing celebrities, or making cheap points of sentimentality, than preserving the freedoms unique to our delightful island nation,” Gutfeld said during one monologue. “Please,” he pleaded with McCotter, “make this interesting, if anything, so I can get a free campaign button.”
By now, Gutfeld must be swimming in McCotter paraphernalia. The congressman is making frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire as a full-fledged, no-joke contender. At least that was my impression when we recently spoke in a coffee shop about 50 miles east of Des Moines.
McCotter, slightly perspiring in his dark suit, did not order an espresso, nor did he need one. His wiry fingers moved nonstop, tapping the linoleum table. For an hour, he fidgeted and made his case. It’s easy to see why Gutfeld is intrigued. McCotter is weird, but pleasantly so.
The Michigander’s offbeat style extends to his politics, which are generally of the tea-party school, but notably pro-labor. McCotter hails from Livonia, a suburb northwest of Detroit, where many of his constituents are Big Three employees. He made his presidential announcement there over the Fourth of July weekend, not far from his childhood home, surrounded by his family and a smattering of blue-collar workers, many of whom appreciate McCotter’s vocal support for the 2009 auto bailouts.
Onstage, McCotter railed against various Obama-administration misdeeds, but his venom was saved for the Wall Street bailouts. McCotter may have supported ladling loans to the automakers, but when it comes to bankers, he may be the most populist member of the 2012 field. Other candidates, such as Michele Bachmann, also opposed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but McCotter takes the suffering of the post-industrial heartland personally. He speaks about hardship the way Bruce Springsteen sings about it.
The United States, McCotter said at his announcement, needs a president “who will truly feel and understand the pain, the anguish of 14 million unemployed Americans, the feeling of being trapped.” He pledged to be that man. “Through your hard work, and through your principled devotion, bequeathing to your children a better nation than the one we inherited, have no doubt that we will restructure the government,” he vowed. “While it is a hard road ahead, we will have better days.” On that note, he abruptly picked up his red-white-and-blue Fender Telecaster and began to jam Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock.”
Born in 1965 on the west side of the Motor City, the son of two strict Roman Catholic special-education teachers, McCotter spent much of his impressionable years debating music with his brother, Dennis, who remains the congressman’s preferred bassist. “When you are growing up in the Seventies, you had glam rock or disco, or you could go back,” he says. “We went back.” His epiphany came one evening when a pair of films — the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! — popped on Channel 7. “It clicked,” he says. “I liked the sound — they didn’t sound like my father’s Irish Rover tapes or his eight tracks.”
#page#The McCotter brothers never looked back. The Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, you name it — if it’s classic rock, they likely own the original vinyl records — and McCotter can play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” solo with his guitar behind his neck. Growing up, the boys’ bands echoed their heroes. First, the Flying Squirrels, a name they picked after the keyboard player accidentally sent one unfortunate rodent airborne while he was driving to band practice. Next was Sir Funk-a-Lot and the Knights of the Terrestrial Jam. “My brother was heavy into Bootsy Collins at the time,” McCotter explains.
McCotter went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Detroit Mercy, a Jesuit institution, then attended its law school, graduating in 1990. From his early years till today, whether as a Wayne County commissioner or a small-time attorney, he has used rock-and-roll to smooth out his awkward-schoolboy edge.
“I have always been a guitar guy,” McCotter says. “My brother is a bass guy. It’s like some people are born wrestlers. Like my son, Timothy, we don’t know how it happened, but he’s a wrestler. Bassists are born, they just like it.” He pauses. “It worked for Mike Huckabee,” he says, noting that the bass-playing former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses last cycle.
McCotter sees a lot to like in Huckabee, who rode his working-class rhetoric into contention. McCotter, to the surprise of his big-name rivals, is aiming to do the same. He is already making a real play for the Ames straw poll on August 13. The summertime convention is an early test of momentum in the run-up to the first-in-the-nation caucuses. McCotter’s campaign raised eyebrows when it paid $18,000 to use the space Huckabee occupied during the 2007 straw poll, where the Arkansan’s motley crew of evangelicals and conservative farmers spooked the highly organized winner, Mitt Romney.
McCotter believes he can make a similar splash, especially with Romney hesitant to compete in the raucous political bazaar. Bachmann, he acknowledges, is likely to do well, as are Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain, three others who have been visiting the state for months. Still, he sees an opening. “The way I view Iowa is that you really have to be here for the caucus. It’s not dispositive if you lose it, it just shows whether you can organize and talk to good people. . . . The vast majority of voters, when they look at this field, are going, Huh?” he sighs, rolling his eyes. “They have not settled on a candidate.” Ames, he hopes, “will be an introduction,” not a test of his fledgling campaign, which features a website, a couple of advisers, and a few dollars. He will be bringing the band along, brother Dennis included.
Of course, a presidential campaign is an uphill battle for any House member. The last sitting member of the House to move to Pennsylvania Avenue was James Garfield in 1880. McCotter is finding it hard to secure support. At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June, he finished dead last in the straw poll. A recent bipartisan poll also found him struggling to gain traction in Michigan, pulling 1.7 percent support, 27 points behind Romney, the leader, and in sixth place behind the near-collapsed candidacy of former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
“Look, these days, it’s hard for anyone to win,” McCotter replies, when asked about how he can compete with little to no national name recognition. “The public, however, knows what they don’t want, especially on our side. My attitude is: Do they want another proposition? If there’s room for that, put it out there, and whatever happens, happens. It’s easier, in a sense, to win it now. We’ve already seen Donald Trump — vroom, he’s gone. We’ve seen Herman Cain — vroom, he’s fading. Now, we’re watching Michele.”
#page#The Bachmann factor is crucial to McCotter’s minuscule chances. If she continues to rise, his window will quickly close. But if she stumbles, there could be a scramble to pick up the pieces. In that scenario, Iowa Republicans, McCotter says, might be interested in considering a quirky policy wonk — one who can play guitar to boot. “In a chaotic time, people may feel an immediate attraction to the person going ‘rah-rah,’ but the best thing is to calm the problem, asking how we fix something so others can pursue their happiness,” he says. To help with the effort, he has enlisted Chris Rants, a former Iowa house speaker, and a handful of former Fred Thompson advisers, who have experience in trying to sell a dry-humored conservative to caucus-goers.
Thing is, McCotter’s legislative record is mixed. A longtime ally of Speaker John Boehner, he recently served as policy chairman of the House GOP conference, the fifth-ranking leadership slot, and by most accounts performed admirably. But there is no signature bill, no heroic piece of legislation. Beyond his colorful floor speeches, McCotter is no master legislator. GOP aides, in background conversations, describe him as either a Russell Kirk–quoting genius or a pretentious clown. In a recent editorial, the Oakland Press, a local newspaper in his district, called the thought of McCotter in the Oval Office “a bit scary.”
Part of this is unfair, more attributable to his cold demeanor than to anything else. Still, beyond his longwinded orations, McCotter has a tendency to brazenly seek publicity, such as when he drafted legislation chastising President Obama for his comments about a Cambridge, Mass., police officer. This presidential campaign, in the eyes of many, is that impulse run out of control.
McCotter may be unknown in the early-primary states, but he’s far from obscure at home. His name was floated earlier this year as a possible challenger to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a two-term Democrat. “He’s a smart guy, he’s very acerbic,” said L. Brooks Patterson, an Oakland County GOP bigwig, to a local newspaper. “If he ran for Stabenow’s seat, he would be Stabenow’s worst nightmare.” But if the White House fever continues, he predicted, McCotter will end up “about a billion short.” Meanwhile, Michigan’s GOP struggles to field a top-tier candidate.
McCotter has little patience for the killjoys, at home or on the Hill. He tells me that he is itching for a bigger fight, that his brand of union-friendly conservatism needs to go national. “Conservative Democrats, who were at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s coalition, are looking to see if the GOP is still the party of Reagan, or whether we will continue in the mode we’re in now, whatever you want to call it,” he says. “Obama realizes this. Just look at his schedule. He’s in Ohio, Michigan, in Iowa — all the manufacturing centers. He’s laying the groundwork, telling workers that Republicans don’t like them, that they want you to go bankrupt, and that they’ll bail out their Wall Street friends.”
Conservatives, he predicts, if not intrigued by his Red Eye appearances, may find his message refreshing. Or they may simply find him curious. “When I first met my wife,” he recalls, “she wondered what a Thaddeus is.” I wait for McCotter to answer that question, but he lets it hang. “That’s a rather existential question,” he smiles. But it’s true, he says, that St. Jude Thaddeus, his namesake, is the patron saint of desperate causes.