All the brouhaha over the big Massachusetts upset has me thinking about my own memorable brush with electoral politics. Leaving out such minor details as the results of the election, and the great disparity in our respective political philosophies, Scott Brown’s campaign to unseat the heir apparent of "the Kennedy seat," as David Gergen stupidly averred during one of the Brown-Coakley debates, gave me a feeling of deja-vu. "With all due respect," Brown shot back, "but this isn’t ‘the Kennedy seat,’ it’s the people’s seat" – a theme of independence from and rebellion against "the Machine," as he put it, that carried him all the way to a most improbable victory.
Machine politician Martha Coakley is very much in the mold of Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat I challenged in 1996, when I stood as the Republican candidate in California’s 8th congressional district. Coakley had every reason to expect to waltz into "the Kennedy seat," and my distinguished opponent displayed a similarly hubristic penumbra. Pelosi was elevated to her present position by the late Sala Burton, wife of congressman Phil Burton, an old-time machine politician in the mold of Boss Tweed, Tom Pendergast, and Richard J. Daly.
In those days, the fabled Burton Machine ran the City like it was Boss Burton’s personal fiefdom – which it was. The Republican party in San Francisco had long since atrophied into the political equivalent of Miss Havisham‘s wedding cake, moldering in complete irrelevance and regularly polling in the mid-teens. No one rose up – or was spared from falling down – the political ladder unless he knelt and kissed the ring of the capo di tutti capi, which is why it took even the legendary Harvey Milk three campaigns for City supervisor (i.e. city council) before he could become America’s first elected openly gay official in the gayest city in the world. Harvey didn’t kiss anyone’s ring.
When old Phil died, the "the Burton seat" passed to his wife, naturally enough: she won the special election hands down, without even bothering to campaign, but only lived a few years beyond her swearing in. On her deathbed, she anointed Pelosi – then a high-end "fundraiser" for the Burton Machine — daughter of Baltimore mayor and longtime congressman Thomas D’Allesandro – to take her place, and has never once bothered to campaign since receiving the Mandate of Heaven.
This is not mere complacency: it is a sense of entitlement that cannot contemplate for a moment the concept of being held to account. To politicians who live in big city Democratic bastions, the very idea of a general election is nothing but a joke – as is, increasingly, the concept of a primary. The party Machine grips the levers of power so tightly that it is virtually impossible to challenge its political monopoly from the inside.
The genesis of my campaign was the run-up to the war in the former Yugoslavia, which was then being debated by a set of players that, today, seems almost impossible to imagine. One the one side, we had the Clintonian Democrats, who were backing the President’s clear determination to bomb some of the oldest cities in Europe into submission, who justified their pro-war stance in the name of a fulsome liberal internationalism. On the other side were the Republicans, who disdained the meddlesome self-righteousness of such war-hawks as Madam Pelosi and Hillary Clinton – the latter reportedly badgered her husband unmercifully until he consented to order bombing raids over Belgrade. Only John "Boots on the Ground" McCain dissented from the emerging post-cold war Republican consensus that it ill behooved the United States to go charging off policing the world.
Oh, those were the days, my friend – we thought they’d never end!
My decision to run was based, in part, on the idea of building a libertarian caucus of the GOP, an "entryist" strategy, as the Trotskyists used to say, which is precisely what the Ron Paul movement is attempting to do today, albeit with a bit more success than I managed to achieve. Ah, but that’s the price of being too far ahead of one’s time: not that there weren’t some small satisfactions. I and a few of my political co-thinkers, having tired of the internal bickering that plagued the Libertarian Party, had left the organization many of us had spent decades in and decided to "reach out" to Republicans. The cold war was over, many conservatives were coming to their senses – slowly, to be sure, and tentatively – and, on the all-important foreign policy question, were coming around to the libertarian position, i.e. opposition to global meddling on the part of the US government. When the Berlin Wall fell, the chief aide of a prominent Republican politician called me and said, in effect, we’re all on the same side now.
The fall of the Wall and the demise of Communism had been confidently predicted by us a few years in advance, in a series of articles in our main instrument of propaganda, The Libertarian Republican, a monthly magazine that gave the appearance of a very well-organized and numerous organization, and featuring a list of "chapters" that took up half a page. In reality, we had no more than a few hundred members nationwide, and no real organized chapters outside of the imagination of our "National Office" – a somewhat seedy storefront in Sunnyvale, California.
We were, in fact, the precursor of the Ron Paul movement: like Rep. Paul, we emphasized our "isolationist" (i.e. pro-peace) foreign policy views, and began to make headway in spite of our organizational weakness as the Communist empire collapsed, and with it, seemingly, the conservative disposition to militaristic belligerence. The perception that something was in the air, something big, was increased by the entry of Pat Buchanan into the Republican presidential sweepstakes.
Buchanan had the temerity to oppose Gulf War I, the first stage of America’s yet-to-be-concluded expedition to the Middle East, and to do so in uncompromising and principled terms that thrilled us to our very bones. Our group, which we called the Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee, had everything a political faction ought to have – a magazine, an office, leaflets, pamphlets, and even a few members, but one thing we didn’t have, and that was candidates. Here was Buchanan, a nationally known figure, making the case against US intervention in Iraq, virtually alone – and so, we thought, why not start a campaign to draft him for a presidential run?
Of course, we didn’t agree with his positions on social issues, and the protectionist rhetoric was in direct contradiction to our free market principles [.pdf], but then – as now – we understood that foreign policy is the key issue around which a new coalition could be forged, one uniting libertarians, recovering conservatives, and ordinary voters who sought some vehicle to register their protest against what Murray Rothbard, the late libertarian economist and theorist, called the Welfare-Warfare State. When Buchanan actually decided to run, none were more surprised – and enthusiastic – than ourselves, but we still needed a few local candidates to run and raise high the banner of libertarianism in the GOP. That’s when I decided to run against Pelosi.
My campaign was centered around Pelosi’s mindless support for Bill Clinton’s war against the former Yugoslavia, a conflict that I believed would open the door to a whole series of overseas military interventions that could only end in disaster. Here was a nation, Serbia, that had never attacked us, never threatened us, and posed no credible threat either to our territory or our interests – so why were we attacking them? And why were we supporting an anti-democratic, radical Muslim semi-criminal gang such as the "Kosovo Liberation Army"?
The first task was to secure the Republican nomination, and in San Francisco this wasn’t too hard. Indeed, the party leadership, so to speak, was grateful to anyone who would take on the thankless task of running against the invincible Pelosi, and there were no other candidates in the primary. However, my relations with the San Francisco GOP, such as it is, were a bit on the rocky side.
The low point was my meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans, the local chapter of the gay GOP group, during which I lectured them on the inadvisability of state intervention in the private affairs of individuals, which meant, from my libertarian perspective, no "anti-discrimination" ordinances, and no gay marriage: after all, hadn’t gay people been persecuted by the State for centuries? Why, then, were they asking for "protection" from their oppressors? Who, I asked, will protect us from our protectors? The State should simply stay out of the whole realm of sexuality. To say that they didn’t like this stance is a bit of an understatement, but my real break with the Log Cabineers came when they voted to endorse a local tax hike. These guys, I concluded – and they were all guys, to be sure – weren’t really Republicans, and they certainly didn’t have a libertarian bone in their bodies. They were just ordinary political hacks who wanted their own little club of "outsiders," and didn’t care about ideas, let alone the idea of liberty. I walked out of the meeting, never to return.
When I ran for Congress, the Log Cabin Club refused to endorse me. I took it as a compliment, and ploughed onward.
The problem with challenging Pelosi was that she ignored all efforts to engage her. My big plan was to get her in a debate, but the pop-eyed and surprisingly inarticulate former fundraiser wasn’t having any of it. Like Coakley, who refused to even show up for the first candidate’s debate in the Massachusetts special election – leaving the field wide open to Brown – Pelosi disdained the first (and only) debate, which was sponsored by the local public radio station. So it was left to me, and the candidate of the "Natural Law Party," to slug it out to a minuscule audience.
I took to a form of political guerrilla warfare, sniping at her when the opportunity arose: one such incident stands out in my mind, a rally against the Kosovo war held in the shadow of San Francisco’s Federal Building, where Pelosi’s offices were located, near the downtown core. A few hundred people gathered in the square, and I managed to convince the organizers – commies, of course – that I should be allowed to address the crowd. When it came my turn to speak, I looked up at the towering edifice of Federal Authority, looming over us like a glass-and-steel Mount Doom, cold, unfeeling, unseeing, indifferent. This, it seemed to me, summed up my predicament, and, indeed, the predicament all ordinary people confront in the face of Power. How could we breach that steely, contemptuous indifference? I determined to try my hardest….
If she wouldn’t debate, then I would pursue her, a libertarian Nemesis hot on the trail of Hubris. But since she never made any public appearances in her district, which she took entirely for granted, this was difficult if not impossible – until she decided to hold a public meeting. The rationale for this rare occasion was some bill offered up by the Republicans, which Pelosi claimed would cut off old people from their Social Security pensions and kick them out into the streets: it was, in reality, a modest attempt to trim some of the more egregious fat from our bankrupt Social Security program, but Nancy knew better, of course. Aha! Here was my chance!
The meeting was held in a high school auditorium, and the audience was mostly older folks, who showed up in droves, scared out of their wits by Pelosi’s shameless fear-mongering. They shuffled into the cavernous room, the men decked out in their patched-up suits, the women attired in their ancient, tattered Sunday best. We leafleted them as they came in with a missive summarizing my campaign platform – no war in the former Yugoslavia, cut back Big Government, the whole libertarian mantra – and pointing out that Pelosi refused to debate me, or anyone, and wasn’t it time for her to earn her position rather than simply assume it was hers for the taking?
Our little group sat together, our protest signs discreetly tucked under our arms, waiting for our chance. Pelosi preened up on the stage like a diva, dressed to the nines in a suit that must have cost more than the annual income of most in the audience, her neck glittering with diamonds, her voice imperious, ranting against "the Gingrich Republicans" who were going to steal everyone’s Social Security checks. All in all, a disgraceful performance.
One of my supporters turned to me and commented on the striking contrast between the bejeweled Pelosi and her threadbare audience, and it struck me, in that moment, that La Pelosi, in her $10,000 designer outfit, was totally unaware of how badly she came off: she had no idea how off-putting and indeed offensive her appearance and manner looked to someone sitting in that audience.
Finally it was time for questions from the audience. Sitting in the front, I immediately raised my hand, but this was pointedly ignored for twenty minutes or so, until the audience, asleep through most of it, started to grow restless. I kept my hand up, and stood, while Pelosi pretended I wasn’t there – an act that pretty much summed up her entire campaign "strategy." The audience started to respond: "Let him speak!" Why don’t you call on him?" "Let him have his say!"
At this point, the television cameras – we had informed the media that we’d be there to confront Pelosi, and, amazingly, they showed – were wheeled into position, showing Pelosi pointedly ignoring me and the cries of the crowd. Defeated, she acceded to their demands, but pointed out that I would only have three minutes to speak.
What, I wanted to know, were we doing policing the world when the problems of her constituents were so pressing? How could she justify going to war against an "enemy" that had never attacked us, on behalf of a "liberation army" that had credibly been accused of drug-dealing, involvement with Islamic terrorists, and indiscriminate attacks on Serbian civilians? What business did we have dropping bombs on some of the oldest cities in Europe, when our own cities were teeming with poverty, physical decay, and spiritual despair? And didn’t this war set a dangerous precedent – what new adventures would the American "superpower" undertake in the post-cold war era? Wasn’t it time for America to come home?
I sat down to spirited applause. The audience she had spent the last hour scaring half to death had turned on her rather quickly. She stood there, her eyes practically popping out of her head – bad contact lenses? Some physical condition peculiar to preening politicians? – and answered with one word: "Genocide." Ten years later, of course, George W. Bush would justify the Iraq war in identical terms, but that was a Republican war, that was different…..
She "explained" that the US had a "moral duty" to bomb Belgrade, that the President was right to go to war without a UN mandate, or a vote of Congress authorizing the use of force – all arguments that she would later backtrack on when the Republicans came to power. As the television camera zoomed in, we engaged in a mini-debate, at least for a few minutes, but she soon cut this short: "We need to take questions from other people," she nervously averred, and I reminded her that she had refused to debate any of her opponents. This, I said, represented the arrogance of someone who took power – and the voters – for granted. I was surprised by the strong applause, and she, nonplussed.
It was all so exhilarating! Finally I had managed to corner the beast in her lair, and the result, from my perspective, was a clear victory, an impression confirmed as I watched myself on the evening news, pointing my finger in her direction and declaring that she would be held personally responsible for the death and destruction wreaked on the hapless people of Yugoslavia – and the terrible precedent set by this useless war, which would someday come back to haunt us.
I won’t go on about this episode much more, except to say that I had a lot of fun – and that I couldn’t help but recall it as I watched Coakley go down to a well-deserved defeat, undone by her own Pelosi-like arrogance. Our political class is truly decadent in that they can no longer even imagine a successful challenge to their privileged status. Like the aristocrats of eighteenth century France, who partied at Versailles while the peasantry dreamed of revenge, they are riding for a fall. And it’s a long way down for the Pelosis and Coakleys of this world….
More than a decade after my quixotic bid, the political class – of which Pelosi is the exemplar – are trembling. A wave of anti-incumbent, anti-Washington populism is sweeping the country, and the pundits – the equivalent of courtiers at the palace of Versailles – are in a tizzy trying to explain it away, hoping against hope that it will go away so they can go back to their lives of complacency and cronyism. But I have news for them: it isn’t going away. As I wrote in November of last year:
"Our ruling elite is on a collision course with the citizenry. There is, at present, no way for disenfranchised voters to register their protest, and have their voices heard, and the pressure is building – slowly but surely – as Americans begin to ask where it will all end. We are headed for an era of unprecedented political and social turmoil, as the economy tanks and the wages of intervention are paid in the form of more ‘blowback’ such as we experienced on 9/11. The America we know and love is rapidly sliding down into the abyss of national bankruptcy and international opprobrium – and our "leaders" are not only helpless to stop it, they are actively pushing us toward the edge."
Will leaders arise to keep us from going off the cliff? No one can say: all I know is that the peasants with pitchforks are on the march. That’s bad news for Coakley, Pelosi, and our regnant elites – and good news for the rest of us.