The clash of experience vs. enthusiasm renews in the Fifth Congressional District contest, resulting in a hair-splitting exercise that shows, as usual, experience can give you a leg up in these showdowns.
The central problem for both candidates in the race, Republicans state Sen. Neil Riser and newcomer Vance McAllister, is to distinguish themselves from each other as their announced conservative ideologies create little policy distance between the pair. As the frontrunner from the start, various opponents prior to the runoff tried two related strategies to contrast themselves with Riser.
One was predicated on the existence of large distaste for elected officials in general, or in practical terms trying to paint Riser as some part of political establishment. The problem was that Riser didn’t fit this profile well, having only been in office a grand total of six years and prior to that and continuing being a successful businessman. Thus only McAllister, an equally successful businessman who was unlike the other major candidates who all had elected office experience, could get any traction out of this strategy.
The other one attempted to strip legitimacy from Riser’s quest by declaring some kind of cabal of state and federal officials was steering Riser into the seat, implying Riser wore some anti-democratic trappings to his politics which rendered him unsuitable for election. This failed as well, not only because it insulted the electorate’s intelligence by telling voters without enlightenment they were fools enough to fall for this presumed conspiracy, but also because only the chattering classes cared about whether Gov. Bobby Jindal and others seemed to support Riser when a number of voters really cared about whether the stars of the reality television show Duck Dynasty backed anybody.
McAllister succeeded here because he did get assisted by that crew, which helped him raise the only substantial money besides his own that he would use in the campaign that went into very few specifics on issues. Thus, his second-place campaign succeeded as a combination of (1) taking a few vague but widely popular positions such as a declaration of being a conservative Christian and against big government, (2) declaring he was a cool guy because he had no political experience and sensible celebrities (not the Hollywood kind) liked him, and (3) throwing plenty of his own money out there to get those messages recognized by a sufficient portion of the electorate that would respond favorably to them.
Note by this course that McAllister in a way tries to allow himself to square a circle. By presenting himself as a conservative vessel, he leaves room within that superstructure to fill it with anything he wants in an attempt to capture more votes even if it deviates from conservatism. Further, he can attempt to make his audience ignore inconsistencies in various elements in that vessel to do the same, hoping the conservative-appearing vessel attracts a certain segment of voters while anything specifically inconsistent with that inside appeals to a different set of voters.
For example, a month ago McAllister declared Congress should mend, not end, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in remarks to an audience of activist Democrats. He then essentially repudiated those remarks by claiming he was misquoted. Now he’s sliding back to that initial position. Such equivocating leads to credible charges that he is unprincipled and goes whichever way the wind blows just to get elected – presumably the mark of Cain exhibited by all “career politicians” he has taken pains to tell the world he is not.
But Riser can earn more political capital than by just pointing out the inconsistency and contrasting it to a consistent conservatism of his record. He can bring doubt onto the very aura of conservatism McAllister has tried to project by asking him how exactly Obamacare should be changed. For example, the crux of the entire law rests on the individual mandate. Does McAllister’s mend-not-end philosophy therefore means he accepts the notion that Americans should be taxed for not engaging in commerce by not buying health insurance? Because you must accept that premise if you think the law must be followed and must assent to its use as a policy instrument. Presumably, if you do not, then you must work to repeal it, or else you acquiesce to the expansion of government power over people’s lives.
It’s in ways like these that Riser can sink a candidacy that already has demographics going against it – avenues that exist only because what McAllister thinks is his strength in his quest, being heretofore outside of the politicians’ world, is in fact a weakness because his inexperience in the world of politics and in understanding of political ideas and ideology put himself in this strategically exposed position. In response, tacking more to the left would be an even bigger mistake, because few non-conservatives will find him credible after the general tone of his campaign up to this point has repudiated that.
Riser may or may not adopt this tactic, but regardless it’s there because McAllister’s inexperience allowed it to be, and it will serve as the primary reason of why people do not think McAllister should serve in Congress should he lose. And remind us that, pretty much always, in the world of politics and in any endeavor wisdom gained from experience does matter.