Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Carl Paladino -- New York can do a lot better

Guest post by R.K. Barry

I'm not sure if New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino has officially changed his name to "Tea Party Favourite Carl Paladino," but I rarely see his name mentioned without being described in this way. 

In any case, they can have him. Paladino is crazy and slimy and bigoted and all kinds of other disgusting stuff, but he's also really stupid, which is a good thing for his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo.

Following his gay-bashing rant at an event over the weekend, pundits of all stripes have been trying to understand what makes Carl tick. They want to know how someone in his position could say, "I don't want [our children] to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option." They want to know how someone so clueless could have had this much political success. Even inquiring Republicans want to know.

Let's face it, in this campaign season all you have to do is blather a few platitudes about Washington insiders and then some nonsense about runaway government spending, wrap yourself up in the flag, and, lo and behold, you are the Republican nominee in too many states to mention.

But the reason I know Paladino is clueless is that Fox News told me so, or at least Bill O'Reilly on Fox News told me so. Yes, in an interview with right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, O'Reilly said the following: "The bottom line on this is, I think everybody but you in the world agrees this isn't going to help the guy. He wants to win the election. He needs independents to come over."

Yes, he does. He needs independents to come over if he hopes to win a general election and you mostly don't do that in New York State by being a crazy social conservative. I know New York. I was raised in the southern part of the state, educated in the northern part, and have lived in the Buffalo media market for thirty years. These days, gay-bashing is just not going to be that helpful with independents, nor is pandering to those who embrace all those other issues that make social conservatism what it is. I'm not saying that New York can't be pretty conservative, only that it's not Jim Demint's South Carolina.

So here's the thing: some recent research has indicated that of those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, 57% identify as part of the religious right. That's a pretty big number, and a number that would suggest that pandering to the Tea Party requires more than a nod to secular libertarian economics.
When a guy like Paladino sticks to his script (which is rare) and talks about fiscal conservatism, he has a chance with independent voters. But every time he feels the need to pander to his Tea Party base, to the extent that this base is far more socially conservative than is frequently advertised, he runs the risk of pushing away a lot of independents. Hell, even Bill O'Reilly gets that.

In the short term, the Tea Party movement itself is in an internal battle between fiscal and social conservatives that hasn't quite shaken itself out yet, but will.

In the end, coalitions always fall apart and the Tea Party is no different; Paladino's ramblings speak volumes about the difficulty of keeping this coalition together. Significantly, independent voters are watching, without perhaps even knowing what they are watching.

Every time a slug like Paladino says something like "there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual," the universe of independent voters available to him contracts just a little bit and the myth that the Tea Party is mostly about fiscal responsibility melts away ever so slightly.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the Tea Party movement over time. It may be that the old Christian Coalition will absorb it. The fact is that social conservatives, Christian Coalition types, are always in it for the long haul; they have better organizational structures and they may just outlast fiscal conservatives once the economy improves. We'll see.

For the time being, the hardest act in politics for a conservative candidate in a place like New York State is to keep the two sides of the Tea Party coalition – the social and fiscal conservative sides - in proper balance so as not to push away much-needed independent voters, while also giving enough red meat to the true believers to keep them happy.

That would take a lot more skill and discipline than someone like Carl Paladino could ever hope to have. That would take Clintonian levels of ability, albeit from the other side of the playing field.

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