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Amateur Night in Colorado

August 7, 2010

In my career as a college teacher, political appointee, business owner and now university president, I’ve seen a number of popular uprisings.  The first was the Goldwater movement that ended badly in the short term but cleaned out some dead wood making way for a successful presidential bid (his third) by Ronald Reagan.  The “Reagan Revolution” was the second in memory and that one did a bit better, but conservatives in that Administration weren’t as smart as Nixon and Ford veterans who largely guided the Gipper during his two terms.  Working in and about that Administration required that I live near Washington, DC and there I saw two tax revolts in Fairfax County.   

All these popular uprisings have similarities.  Enthusiasm at the beginning, complete joy and determination when victorious, and the return to business as usuals when the professionals regain power.

Though it’s fun to get out there, say what you think, and slug it out with the “pols” who believe they know better, in the end, amateurs always lose to professionals.

Nothing is more disturbing to a professional campaign manager than amateurs.  They have their place, of course, writing checks, stuffing envelopes and going door to door.  But, keep them out of campaign management or as candidates, or disasters, embarrassments, and gaffes will abound.

Though these professionals are too smart for their own good, it’s clear that, if you’re going to be successful in the short and long term, politics should not be treated as a hobby, particularly in political conditions we face now.  The similarity of the Obama Administration to socialist regimes in Western Europe and Latin America is striking and if we and our children—not to mention our grandchildren–are to have a certain and prosperous future, the elections of 2010 and 2011 will determine our fate. 

Everything is at stake in those two elections.

For that reason, for our own sanity and to protect us from dashed hopes, it’s important to understand that popular uprisings are conducted by “hobbyists” and they are at a distinct disadvantage to the professionals that make up the Obama Administration.  They are not hobbyists; indeed their entire lives were devoted to attaining political power and their policies are not ad hoc, spur of the moment, or jerry-rigged.  Their policies are wrong, but they are very well thought out, developed over a very long period of time, and every utterance in support of those policies has been rehearsed.

On the other side are Tea Party activists, business professionals, housewives and grandparents who for the first time in their lives are becoming involved in a variety of forms of local, state and national civic action.  Arising from their numbers are persons willing to run for office who never ran for anything in their lives except, perhaps, one of those races at church picnics where the legs of two persons are tied by a rope.

I don’t blame them at all. 

With the exception of the Administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, America has had pretty good leadership.  And our isolation from the wars that ravaged the cities towns and villages of 20th century Europe gave us a sense of invulnerability.

All that changed when the World Trade Center Towers were attacked on 9/11.

In times of crisis, or rapid change of any kind — good or bad — resident tendencies in the culture, politics or government come to the fore.  In this crisis, a sitting president continued the expansion of the powers of the American government, wielded our country’s military power in Afghanistan and Iraq with the result that the United States is engaged in “nation building” and the imposition of democracy on countries and cultures far removed from our own.  Dissatisfaction with the George W. Bush Administration — aided by a financial meltdown that was the result of indiscriminate lending to unqualified home buyers — the American people elected a President committed to even greater expansion of federal government powers, expenditures, and taxation. 

Some have observed that it took two generations to recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it will take four generations to recover from the maladministration of government by George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.

That has scared all of us, created a rush of activity in opposition by hitherto uninvolved citizens who now challenge the Republican Establishment.  Establishments are great if you’re enjoying the benefits of Establishment power, but few conservative Tea Party activists fall into that category. 

In Colorado where the Establishment GOP thought that Jane Norton and Scott McInnis would have a free ride, Norton and McInnis lost in the GOP caucuses to political “unknowns.” 

That they are unknown should also scare us since, as mentioned here, politics isn’t a hobby. 

Politics takes skill, financing, knowledge and understanding, little of which is visible in the campaigns for Governor and U.S. Senator by the candidates who have arisen from the Tea Party ranks.  It got so bad a few days ago that an experienced Tea Party activist, Tom Tancredo, issued an ultimatum to both Establishment and Tea Party candidates: “Step aside and let a real conservative run.”

I can understand Tom Tancredo’s frustration.  Tancredo served as president of the Independence Institute — a Libertarian/conservative think tank.  Then he was a political appointee in the Reagan Administration which led to his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, and, most recently, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.  Politics is not a hobby for Tom Tancredo and it must cause him a stomach upset to see the missteps that will probably allow Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to waltz into the Governor’s office in November and, possibly, elect Andrew Romanoff to the U.S. Senate.

There’s a long story behind this state of affairs that goes back to the populist origins of Colorado.  Outsiders may not realize it, but Colorado term limits members of the State Legislature and limits campaign contributions to state legislative office to $200 and $525 for the primary and general election campaigns for the State Legislature and Governor respectively.  Hobbyists don’t have a national base from which to draw thousands of donations in small amounts, which, of course, encourages the wealthy to play in Colorado’s state political ponds and excludes wage earners from the game of politics. 

Before Tancredo entered the race for Governor, the Senate minority leader, Republican Josh Penry, expressed interested in running for Governor.  After assessing what it would take to run and win — and encouraged not to run by wealthy supporters of his likely opponent — Penry decided not to run.  Hickenlooper and McInnis are wealthy, Penry is not and that, basically, is the end of that.  Motivated by a sense of responsibility for the consequences of his decision, Penry approached Tom Tancredo with a plan to tie the hands of Establishment candidate Scott McInnis to a conservative “Contract” for Colorado.

There’s something charming about anyone trying to tie the hands of a professional politician to anything, let alone a conservative program for governing once elected.  Either your very soul is conservative, or it’s not, and no piece of paper with a signature on it will keep a sitting Governor from doing whatever he pleases.

As Mom used to say, learn from your mistakes, and, hopefully, the Tea Party activists will learn from the coming debacle in Colorado’s upcoming elections and return in 2012 with more forceful, focused, and expert leadership. 

Until then, it’s amateur night in Colorado.

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