Pete McCloskey's Candidacy
Reposted with permission from Down With Tyranny
As promised, I attended Pete McCloskey’s announcement speech in Lodi. I was impressed with the event itself, and with McCloskey himself. He has a personal charisma and a pugnacious spirit that will surely make the Republican primary an interesting race to watch. Furthermore, there is so much readily apparent narrative drama (which McCloskey plays to) that there is a virtual certainty that the media will eat up McCloskey’s candidacy with a spoon. But as enthusiastic as I am about McCloskey running (I am aware that there is no downside to his candidacy from an anti-Pombo perspective), I have to say that I don’t feel like I have joined the McCloskey bandwagon. At the very least, I have to say that I left Lodi unconvinced that McCloskey has a better shot to unseat Pombo in the primary than the Democrats have in the general. Maybe this is foolish of me, and I am certainly open to changing my opinion as his campaign develops. But it is where I’m at right now.
Before I begin to explain what happened in greater depth, let me make a confession. I’m sorry to report that I got to the event a bit late due to unexpected traffic delays (I was in the car for an hour and twenty minutes driving from Walnut Creek), although I still was able to hear the tail end of the press conference. Afterwards, I hung around for awhile to get a feel for what was said, and during that time I was able to speak with McCloskey himself for a bit. So it wasn’t a complete loss. But it was frustrating.
When I arrived at the press conference, the first thing I noticed was that there were cameramen from at least four television news stations in the room. There were also quite a number of other reporters. All in all, I’d say that half of the people in the room were reporters or their cameramen, which did not surprise me that much. I think it’s likely that this race will continue to capture significant media attention. This is especially true if McCloskey continues to give them the good quotes (e.g. “Congressmen are like diapers; they need to be changed, and for the same reason.”); if he plays up the straight-talking, maverick Republican angle (it meshes well with his status as a decorated combat vet); and if he is able to criticize Pombo in a way that will come across as principled critiques of a person (and a party) gone astray, as opposed to political cheap-shots. It also doesn’t hurt that McCloskey has a flair for the dramatic.
You see, the second thing I saw upon entering the room in which the press conference was held was a bowl of oranges. McCloskey, for those who don’t already know, has an orange (and IIRC olive) farm about twenty miles away from Lodi. In any event, the oranges were from McCloskey’s farm, a farm that he was very reluctant to leave. (UPDATE 1/24: YOU CAN SEE WHY I MEAN BY WATCHING A VIDEO HERE).
The point was very clear, and very clearly emphasized. McCloskey has been a lot of things, an environmental lawyer, a United States Marine, and a Congressman. But right now, he’s a farmer, and therefore he identifies with, and understands, the farmers of Lodi and San Joaquin County. His oranges, at the very least, lend him a bit of authenticity given the fact that he’s moving into the district to run against Pombo.
Furthermore, McCloskey metaphorically beat his swords into plowshares and was quite literally enjoying the fruits of his retirement before this race against Pombo. And so in a way, the oranges served to ennoble McCloskey. He’s saddling up one last time to take on the upstart black knight who has begun to wage war on Sir McCloskey’s hard-earned victories. He’s not sure if he’ll win or lose, but he’s setting out to fight the good fight. Or so the story goes.
Substantively, McCloskey seemed to want to focus largely on the issue of ethics, corruption, a balanced budget, and the environment. On his website he writes:
I run, in part, because I believe the key question of the Republican Party today is whether we go back to historic Republican principles of integrity, fiscal responsibility, limited government and environmental balance, or do we go the way of the DeLay Republicans, (1) with no ethics enforcement, (2) an understandable public perception that Republicans give undue preference to big-money contributors, (3) a huge and ever-growing bureaucracy, and (4) a constant erosion of the environmental protections for community health, and park and wilderness lands that have been established over 30 years.
He is also unabashedly for the Murtha position on Iraq, although he seems not to be making too much of an issue about Iraq in this campaign.
When I was speaking to him I tried to raise the issue of naval surface fire support for the Marine Corps (something I thought he might have a special interest in given his service in the Marines), but he quickly returned the conversation to the above topics. At first I got the feeling that he had decided what he wanted to talk about and that he wanted to stay on message, but after about a minute I wasn’t so sure because he proceeded to tell a story that was definitely off message (not to mention off color). It reminded me of something a friend of mine had written to me the other day, something that I think is worth considering. She said:
As far as McCloskey goes, I'll be curious to see how this all plays out. I have a recollection of McCloskey from his time in office as someone who was never very popular in any circle. That same blunt, outspoken quality that is so endearing and suggestive of integrity can very easily start to feel like a kind of crackpot cantankerousness. Think back to what he said at the Defenders meeting, when he called Pombo a crook and himself an old bastard. Now, that stuff was pretty amusing because we were predisposed to those kinds of lines. And we all knew we'd never hear Jerry [McNerney] or Filson talk that way. But at the same time we realized that NOT talking that way was the more prudent, responsible and Congressional approach. And that's part of the conundrum. McCloskey seems to be lacking certain internal check mechanisms.
I have to say that I have some sympathy for this concern. I can certainly tell you that for all of McCloskey’s personal charisma, he ended the conversation with me not by saying “Bye” or thanking me for coming or excusing himself at all. Instead, he simply turned around and walked away. It was very odd, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had a response like that from anyone, let alone a politician.
I could also see that lack of what my friend called “internal check mechanisms” spilling out in other ways. How else, do you explain this (from the Contra Costa Times):
In the past two decades, he [McCloskey] has become a critic of pro-Israeli U.S. policies and visited the late Palestinian leader, Yassar Arafat.
He adamantly denies that he is anti-Semitic. But he fueled the allegations in 2000 after he spoke to the Institute for Historical Review, whose members either deny or contest the details of the Holocaust. A speech transcript shows that McCloskey said, "I don't know whether you are right or wrong about the Holocaust ... "
The group cites McCloskey as one of its supporters on its Web site and fund-raising letters.
On Wednesday, McCloskey called the group a "bunch of nuts" and said the transcript was inaccurate. He recalled "being booed" when he talked about the Holocaust.
"Of course the Holocaust existed," he said. "But I will go and speak to any group."
Meanwhile, his campaign chairman, Lewis Butler, said he would demand the organization stop using McCloskey's name.
Now I spoke to a longtime friend of McCloskey’s who denied that he’d ever seen any evidence of anti-Semitism in him, and for my part I find it difficult to believe that McCloskey is actually a Holocaust denier, if for no other reason than he seems very moderate and, let’s face it, denying the Holocaust is a very extremist position.
But even if he completely repudiates the views of the IHR, it was still a mistake for McCloskey to associate himself with them in any way. Like DavidNYC of Swing State Project, I find McCloskey’s excuse that he will speak to anyone a bit lame. And it is these types of concern writ large that first caused my enthusiasm for McCloskey to wane a bit.
Still, I think the biggest reason why I am not totally gung-ho about McCloskey is the simple fact that I did not meet a single Republican from the district at the press conference. I know that there are some Republicans that will support McCloskey, including Mark Connolly from Tracy. But most of the people at the press conference were either part of McCloskey’s campaign, friends of McCloskey from out of the district, or reporters. I met a friend of a McCloskey campaigner (both of whom were from outside the district), an ex-Presbyterian minister from Davis (who was not a Republican), two McNerney supporters from Lodi who are both on the San Joaquin County Democratic Central Committee, and a man whose granddaughter dated someone in McCloskey’s family (and in any event the gentleman was in California on a vacation and drove to Lodi from Marin County to see McCloskey’s speech). I admit, there very well might have been a number of Republicans in attendance from the district. But I was disappointed that his announcement did not engender more interest from local Republicans.
I know that this is all fairly intellectualized, but there is something I realized when I was coming home on BART. I kind of had a gut check. When I was talking to McCloskey he told me that the best way a Democrat could show their support for him would be to register as a Republican and help him win the primary, just as a bunch of Stanford students had done in order to help him win his first Congressional campaign against Shirley Temple Black. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t ask or encourage anyone else to do that. If I thought it would make a difference, I would feel differently.
I know I have heard a number of people say it will be easier to take Pombo out in the primary with McCloskey than in the general with Steve Filson, Jerry McNerney, or Steve Thomas. I kind of want to believe them. But I’m just not feeling it. And I wonder if some of the convention wisdom about McCloskey winning the primary might not result from a certain kind of confusion between two scenarios.
It seems like a lot of people feel that McCloskey is a better candidate than any of the Democrats in the race, and take that to mean that that McCloskey has a better shot at beating Pombo in the primary than the Democrats have a shot at beating Pombo in the general election. But even if it is granted that McCloskey is a better candidate, it only implies that McCloskey would be more able to win a general election against Pombo than the other Democrats, not that he has a better shot of winning the Republican primary than the Democrats have a shot at winning the general. Of course, the latter scenario might still be true. Anyhow, it’s something to consider.