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.”