Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book Review: Primary Mistake

At the urging of two comments left on my previous post about the Club for Growth, I ordered Steve Laffey’s tale of his ill-fated campaign, Primary Mistake - How the Washington Republican Establishment Lost Everything in 2006 (and Sabotaged My Senatorial Campaign).

To the best of my recollection, this is the first book I have read cover-to-cover in a single day. This distinction is tempered by its straightforward language and moderate 195 page length, but it is nonetheless a very engaging read. Any person thinking of challenging an entrenched incumbent would do well to read this book if only to get a sense of what tortures await those who dare to pose a serious challenge to the political establishment.

Primary Mistake has another distinction in my book collection. I typically dog-ear and annotate sections I agree with and wish to remember or revisit. Instead, I found myself agreeing with so much of what Laffey wrote that I ended up dog-earing mostly those pages where I had a sense that Laffey was either wrong or naive. Even still, these notations were few. Seven in fact, one of which was a policy disagreement unrelated to campaign machinations.

Before I go further, I want to say that Mayor Laffey was a better candidate than I had originally estimated. I was not very familiar with his private sector accomplishments, and his tenure as mayor was nothing to sneeze at either.

Since my negative observations were so few, I will go through them individually in their order of appearance.

On page 40, Laffey describes an ongoing theme of the book, the lack of substance on which Chafee was running:
My message to the people of Rhode Island was based on ideas. In the business world you don’t get promoted by telling your boss why the other guy shouldn’t get promoted. Promotions are granded on the merit of your ideas and your track record. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the NRSC didn’t have any ideas to run on.
Laffey has a good point. Chafee was indeed a bum and nobody had anything good to say about him. But politics isn’t business, and you can win an election with negative campaigning. Politics is a zero sum game, and the rules are different. If Pepsi could run ads saying Coke will give you liver cancer without getting sued they’d do it.

On page 59, Laffey gives his fourth qualification for hiring a paid campaign staffer:
NEVER WORKED ON ANOTHER CAMPAIGN BEFORE!
This requirement may strike some people as odd, but to me, it was the most important one. I wasn’t interested in folks who hopped around from campaign to campaign, but someone who believed in the Laffey mission.
I can understand hiring a person despite inexperience, but to hold inexperience as an affirmative qualification is shortsighted. As I will get into in later points, Laffey’s campaign could have used a little experience.

On pages 83 and 84 Laffey recounts how opposition researchers dug up some old college newspaper articles he had written and gave them to reporters. Laffey’s naivete shows here:
What I can’t figure out is why the press so eagerly slapped this story on the front page of the Rhode Island section, on the day of the final debate no less.
This is no head-scratcher. Somebody handed the newspaper people a finished product, no work necessary. Why wouldn’t they run that? Timing be damned! It isn’t their keisters on the line.

Page 105 details one of the more sinister tactics used by politicos. His opponents sent mailers implying Laffey found Hillary Clinton’s position on abortion “reasonable”. Of course, this couldn’t have been further from the truth, and the mailer was sent to obscure the fact that Chafee had a 100% approval from NARAL. But this is an old tried-and-true tactic used by seasoned political operatives. I, a political nobody, first heard about this sort of thing in 2002, and as it was told to me campaigns have been doing this sort of thing for years. That doesn’t make it any more morally right, just a fact of life.

On page 107 Laffey wonders out loud what it would have been like if he had gotten “down in the mud”:
Imagine this creative ad on Rhode Island’s major TV stations:
Linc Chafee is throwing mud at Steve Laffey because he is afraid of the truth. The truth? Linc Chafee was an illegal alien himself. Can we trust a cocaine abuser to protect our children? Can we trust an illegal alien to protect our borders? The answer? No.
Laffey dismisses this sort of thing out of hand, but an experienced campaigner would have run something very much like that, and it would have worked. Reading this section I immediately thought back to my previous post and my analogy about bringing a knife to a gun fight.

On page 154, Laffey recounts election night and his 54-46 loss, and his apparent surprise. Surprise? That’s a pretty big loss to have been surprised by. I am left to wonder how grounded the campaign was to have missed by that big a margin. Again, experience on the campaign staff may have helped.

If only for completeness I will mention my only serious policy disagreement with Laffey. On page 183 he states his support for drug re-importation. He is right to say that fear mongering about drug quality was a bogus argument. Unfortunately, opponents of drug re-importation used safety because the real argument is above the heads of too many Americans. Drug re-importation is not really a free market decision because we would be importing drugs originally bought and priced by a socialist system. Drugs are cheaper from Canada because the Canadian government threatens pharmaceutical companies with the theft of their patents.

Not all of my dog-ears were on points of disagreement with Laffey. On page 41 the mayor tells an all too familiar tale that I think may be the undoing of the Republican party:
By attacking me for making money in the private sector, Liddy Dole and her cohorts were essentially attacking the capitalist system on which this country is based. They attacked the invisible hand of Adam Smith, the free enterprise system, and the guy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to live the American Dream.
I recoiled as I read this, thinking back to McCain’s attacks on Romney, and Huckabee’s denunciation of corporate greed. These are not recognizably Republican sentiments. They are Democratic talking points, and they chip away at public opposition to creeping socialism.

Overall, Laffey makes many astute observations about how the Republican party elites have forsaken any semblance of principle in the hope of winning a few elections. But voters don’t care about a party without any identifiable platform, and this bargain has proved futile, just as it did in the era of Gerald Ford.

1 comment:

S. Weasel said...

Oh! Thanks for that. I don't read political books, but I'm interested in the Laffey had to say.

That was local to me and it was the point at which I realized how gefukt the GOP is.

It's tough being a conservative in the bluest state in the union. The party frequently doesn't even field candidates in races here. I've always believed that's suicidally short-sighted.

I realize running as a Republican up here is doomy. But, from the long view, getting conservative ideas out there is important, even if you don't win many elections. If the party acts like it doesn't care about the New England vote, it's never going to make inroads.

But I always understood it to be a function of "much to do and not enough money."

UNTIL the party involved itself at the primary level to defeat a conservative in favor of the worst RINO in the legislature.

There's money for that? Really?

Laffey/Chafee and Toomey/Specter convinced me the GOP actively dislikes conservatives and is willing to expend precious capital to defeat them. That's a bitter mouthful to swallow.