It has been a tough year for the Democrats to recruit candidates for office in South Dakota. The reason is clear. People who have the mental acumen and other qualifications to hold public office do not think that the political system in its current state is capable of providing fair representation and honest government. They do not see the ballot box as a viable or relevant means of registering their concerns. Consequently, running for public office, even if one wins an election, is pointless.
But the first objection to a run for office is more compelling. It is that candidates will be subjected to a level of libelous and degrading accusations that harm the candidates and their families. One candidate who has run before, consented to run again, but then withdrew, said his wife and children objected to the point where his marriage could be jeopardized. He said that when one contemplates a campaign, one thinks about all the positive things one can do. But when the campaign starts, the reality is that you find yourself swimming in a cesspool of petty and slanderous accusations. His children were assailed by disparaging comments in school, and he found that he confronted them in the course of his business long after the campaign was over. Democratic candidates in South Dakota, and many other places, have to very carefully consider what effect a candidacy will have on their families, their friends, and their professions.
And as another long-time public servant put it, there is no honor in running for public office any more. You go to Pierre thinking you can contribute something, but you find that nothing can get past the mob rule that has become politics in Pierre. The mob has been in control for decades, and while the Democrats try to reflect the diversity of support in their party, the Republicans march in unwavering lockstep, taking their orders from their ideological dictatorship, and chorusing the latest chant sent down from party headquarters. The longtime public servant cites an example.
When Kevin Weiland decided not to run in the primary for South Dakota's house seat, he gave his reasons as, after conferring with party leaders, not wanting to create more divisions in the party, and that he conferred with Rep. Herseth Sandlin and was assured that although she voted against the health care reform bill, she would not vote to repeal it. Immediately, the Republican headquarters pounced on this announcement and contrived its standard, nefarious disinformation. Candidates Curd and Noem immediately took up the chant that Herseth Sandlin should explain the "back room deal" to her constituents. A responsible, intelligent but contentious call between two members of the same party becomes a back room deal, because conniving and backroom manipulation is the only kind of politics that the Republicans in Pierre know and understand. However, that press-release performance by the candidates, with the the Republican official hack site--South Dakota War College--trumpeting the press releases, is testimony for anyone who is paying attention to what has happened to politics in South Dakota and what the real agenda of these candidates is.
This all is consistent with why John Thune will have no significant challenger in this fall's general election. Although I am not aware of all the efforts put forth to field a strong Democratic candidate, I have been involved in identifying potential candidates. The matter of the toxic nature of campaigns and their corrosive effect on personal and family life is the constant factor that potential candidates cite in not considering a run for office. However, disillusionment with South Dakota runs deeper than avoiding the permanent tarnish that ad hominem campaigns inflict. Thune's win over Tom Daschle in 2004 comes into play. A few Democrats say that Thune ran a good campaign and Daschle didn't, but politicos who place importance on principles have a more dire analysis of that campaign. Those who credit the Thune campaign do so because it was, apparently, successful. They fail to acknowledge that the basis of the campaign was character assassination. And the fact that character assassination was successful says much about the intellectual and moral level of South Dakota. Thune may have run a successful campaign, but it was not a decent campaign. It depended on the electorate's capacity for petty malice and escalating it into malign falsehoods on which they would frame their voting decisions.
Groups allied with the Thune campaign ran full-page newspaper ads with pictures of Tom Daschle next to pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, branding them all as enemies of America. Thune followed a strategy of trying to stay remote from those who did the dirty work. One of the anti-Daschle political blogs was created solely as a weapon of character assassination. But it was eventually revealed that its authors were on Thune's pay roll, and Thune could no longer disassociate himself from the nefarious and poisonous basis of his campaign. The blog's main author, who had been a professor at SDSU left his academic position and became a staff member for Thune, the circumstances of which the South Dakota press never investigated. In addition to the outright falsehoods and libels, the campaign made an assessment of a characteristic in South Dakota that the Daschle campaign preferred to believe was not possessed by a majority. The Thune campaign used Daschle's million-dollar home in D.C., which he and his working-spouse purchased, as an example of his betraying the values of his constituents. In South Dakota, as realtors have pointed out, a similar home could have been purchased for about a third of the D.C. price tag, but any evidence of personal success in South Dakota is regarded as a betrayal of those good, old, sod-hut values. By being successful in D.C. and even earning a reputation as an effective leader, Tom Daschle committed the kind of act that is unforgivable and justification for hatred in South Dakota: he actually accomplished something. The Thune campaign plumbed the jealousy, resentment, and petulance at someone's success to the fullest, and the ploy won. Toward the end of the campaign, Thune became brave enough to openly identify himself with the character assassination. Shortly before election day, Thune's campaign ran an ad accusing Tom Daschle of dumping his first wife for a beauty-queen trophy. Inspiring stuff.
The betrayal-of-South-Dakota theme was linked to Daschle's opposition to a Constitutional Amendment against flag desecration, which he said was taken care of by statute. Anything that could be contorted into a betrayal of South Dakota's provincial values was brought into the campaign against him. And that is where the Daschle campaign miscalculated. Daschle has a personal aversion to personal attacks and smears. His campaign thought that South Dakotans by and large were above that kind of tactic and that a sense of decency would prevail in the end. The campaign was simply wrong.
Thune will not have an opponent this fall. He gets a chance to run on his record. As a member of the House, his record was one of stunning fecklessness and befuddled obstinacy. He just said no. He thought having a service office in Aberdeen was a waste, until local Republicans insisted that, perhaps, having a facility for addressing constituent concerns might be part of the job. He said no to the by-pass of U.S. 281 around Aberdeen, and the construction of a 4-lane highway from the Interstate, until members of his own party hotly pointed out to him that sometimes infrastructure was important and necessary for the operation of the state's third-largest community. And when the 4-lane project ran into difficulty with an environmental impact study, the Senators held a conference call with constituents at the VFW while Thune staffers ran around circulating flyers contending that environmental concerns were just another way to waste tax dollars. As a congressman, Thune did not belong to any of the caucuses dealing with agricultural matters or water development, until a political opponent pointed this out and Thune, apparently, thought he should maybe make a pretense at least of caring about some of the state's major economic concerns.
Thune is a good script reader. He can recite what others contrive for him. For his 2004 campaign he bought the services of Dick Wadhams, a Karl Rove compatriot who shares the idea that the measure of political success is how many characters you assassinate. Wadhams (now chair of the Colorado Republican party) helped Thune build on the theme that Daschle emboldened and gave comfort to Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. During a televised debate, Thune tossed out this accusation that Daschle was in the business of giving comfort to and emboldening our enemies, a clear implication of treason, and Daschle sat with a stunned look that anyone would be so absurdly malevolent as to make this kind of charge without even the remotest fact to misconstrue in support of it. There is, of course, no answer for this kind of accusation except to point out that it has more relevance in regard to the mental competence and the moral character of its authors. That kind of response was precisely the kind of thing that Daschle avoided and forbade his campaign from using. However, his reticence showed how wrongly he had judged the prevailing character of Thune and the people of South Dakota.
While some people promote the idea that Thune's defeat of Daschle makes him a political star, whatever that is, Thune continues to pursue irrelevant foolery as his political course. He has taken a course of maligning the attempts to stimulate the economy, although he voted for the major measures advanced by George Bush. He co-sponsored legislation to prevent any taxation of cow flatulence, although the EPA has indicated that such taxation was never proposed and could not be administered if it was. Thune's forte is to pursue falsehoods that fool the foolish and the dupes. His performance on the floor of the Senate to decry stimulus spending was so cogent and eloquent that it made the comedy channel. (See
the video below.)
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Clusterf#@k to the Poor House - Economic Recovery Plan|
Of late, elements of the Republican stripe have assailed the Democratic party for failing to give South Dakota voters a choice for the U.S. Senate. They cannot grasp that the voters have registered their choice. In the past, they have voted for state officers who represent their resentful conservatism, but for national representatives who are adept at bringing to the state the massive amounts of federal welfare on which the state subsists. This welfare does not include what is due the reservations, as required by treaty. It does include the heavy subsidization of agriculture, particularly in those parts of the state where it has never been capable of sustaining itself. With Thune's constant refrain of saying no, perhaps the U.S. can finally divest itself of a the huge burden of stout pioneer-types who base their independent lifestyles on federal handouts.
So, what kind of votes will the Democrats cast? Those who are left will most likely sit this election out. When I look back at the many people I worked with in the 2004 campaign, I am astounded at how many have left the state or plan to. South Dakota constantly whimpers about the brain drain, the exodus of its young people with talent and aspirations to other places. As most college counselors advise, a smart student does not invest a future where it has little chance of developing. But it is not only the young who leave for better prospects. During the last five years, many mid-career professionals I know have left. And many more who are looking for productive retirements have left. They plan to invest the time remaining to them in other places.
Ultimately, what motivates people in South Dakota is not political. It's cultural. John Thune's unopposed candidacy does not represent a political choice as much as a cultural state of affairs. The people who would encourage and support a Democrat candidate have already voted. With their feet. And their minds. And their morals.