Friday, October 01, 2010

report from delaware: not crazy, but not elected yet, either

It was only forty minutes--well, an hour, with traffic--from my home in suburban Philadelphia to the heart of the Tea Party revolution in Delaware. And I only spent an hour or so at the GOP Unity Lunch in Wilmington: really, a Christine O'Donnell rally, with the other candidates along for the ride. But it was enough to reach a tentative verdict. O'Donnell, and her supporters, are far from crazy: a little downscale perhaps (the supporters), and little bit less eloquent than I might have hoped (the candidate), but committed, on-message, and very much in the mainstream of the American conservative movement. The question is whether that movement is broad enough to win in Delaware and other moderate states, and if so broad enough to sustain a stable governing coalition.

First the candidate: she's a young looking 41 (I saw here pretty close up), and--while most people would call her pretty--not nearly beautiful enough for that to be the sole basis of her success. Rather, what she seems to possess is the steely determination of someone who has been hearing all her life that she or her ideas were outrageous and learned not to take the critics, or perhaps the whole process, too seriously. Her speech, which mixed Reaganite nostrums with jibes at her opponent, the county executive of the Wilmington region, was predictable in content but unusually well-delivered: and she was enough of a politician to work everyone, from the other candidates to a boy who happened to be in the front row, into the argument. Far from a wild-eyed fanatic, she seemed if anything a little bit predictable: like a mortgage banker or someone you met at a singles party, and realized they were just a little bit out of your league, even if you probably did go to a fancier college than she did.

Now for the audience, which numbered in the couple of hundreds: not bad for a small state and an event announced only the day before. Notwithstanding a few hard-right bumper stickers, they were for the most part good natured and mainstream, with little seeming anger and a lot of good-natured enthusiasm: like the crowd at a country music concert, which I suspect many have previously been. But, like the country music crowd, they were almost entirely white, and overwhelmingly traditional in their cultural affect. (It was the only lunch I can remember which had no diet soda, although there were a few small bottled waters). There was also an interesting gap between the guests, who were mostly downscale and informally dressed, and the campaign staff, who (like the candidate) seemed highly professional albeit with a distinctly Christian conservative air. (The invocation referred specifically to the Trinity, and one staffer asked me to pray for Christine, which I happily agreed to do.)

All in all I left with little or no fear of the candidacy and even a bit charmed by the candidate. But I did wonder about the base of the movement. The key to success for the Republican Party is to appeal to outsiders like those at the Wilmington rally and insiders like those who voted for Eisenhower, Nixon, or (at the outset) both George Bushes: country club and country music together, so to speak. Reagan appealed to both of them; McCain appealed strongly to neither. Can a candidate like O'Donnell, whose rhetoric is Tea Party but whose personal style is more that of a Christian businesswoman, pull it off? I don't know, but I wouldn't count her out.


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