WASHINGTON – Chris McDaniel, 41, the flawed paladin of the tea party persuasion who in Mississippi’s Republican Senate runoff failed to wrest the nomination from the faltering hands of six-term incumbent Thad Cochran, 76, came into politics after a stint in talk radio. There, practitioners do not live by the axiom that you don’t have to explain something you never said, and McDaniel had some explaining to do about some of his more colorful broadcast opinions and phrases, which may have given a number of voters pause about whether he is quite senatorial – whatever that means nowadays.
Also, Democrats and independents who had not voted in the Democrats’ primary could vote in the Republican runoff. They probably care more than Republicans – and many Republicans care more than they like to admit – about legislative pork, of which Cochran has served up heaping amounts during his 33 years on the Appropriations Committee. This bright red state has the nation’s lowest per capita income, the highest federal funding as a percent of revenue, and a surplus of cognitive dissonance between its professed conservatism and its actual enjoyment of the benefits Cochran can now continue to shovel its way.
Mississippi’s conservatives understand the bargain they have struck. One resident of a town not named for the tea party spirit, Olive Branch, told The New York Times she suspected Cochran engaged in costly logrolling: “There’s no telling what kinds of liberal things he had to vote for to get those kinds of things for Mississippi, what kind of trading he had to do.”
Give tea partyers their due by acknowledging the virtue that makes them scary to their cultured despisers. The tea party’s critics consider its politics not properly focused on the material things appropriations buy.
Ten years ago, a talented polemicist of the left, Thomas Frank, wrote a lively lament, What’s the Matter with Kansas? His book’s title replicated the title of a scalding 1896 editorial in The Emporia Gazette by that paper’s famous editor William Allen White, who believed that populist hostility to sophisticates and wealth-creators was impoverishing Kansas.
In 2004, Frank, a Kansas native, argued that Kansans vote against the Democratic Party because they misunderstand “their fundamental interests.” Rather than lining up for largess from liberalism’s government cornucopia, they are distracted by cultural concerns. Instead of seeking concrete benefits, they vote about abstractions, such as constitutionalism, limited government and cultural conservatism.
So, what’s the matter with the tea party, according to those who think there is much the matter with it? It is insufficiently materialistic. Hence its reluctance to be bought by the appropriator. And what’s the matter with Mississippi? The state – and Mississippians have waited a long time for this to be said – is so much like the rest of the nation.
The best thing about Mississippi’s recent moment in the national spotlight is how normal the state seems. It is, like the nation, defined by its ambivalence, its uneasy conscience, about its appetite for what Washington dispenses. Mississippi today is burning with embarrassment, but not, at long last, embarrassment about race.
McDaniel’s defeat, like many the tea party has experienced this primary season, brings that feisty faction face to face with a melancholy fact: Americans’ devotion to frugal government is frequently avowed but rarely inhibiting.
If the nation’s trajectory is to be changed, this will not be done as abruptly as tea partyers wish, and will not be done without their continued wholesome agitation. They must take to heart the truth Thomas Jefferson told in 1790 to a congressional candidate – that “the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, that we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get.”
George Will’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.