Political Hay

Sen. Chris Matthews (D-Pa.)

Will it come to pass?

By 8.5.08

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Sunday morning. Front page. Huge color photo. Lots of ink. Your name.

If you are thinking of running for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania, a blurb like this is hard to top. In this case, Central Pennsylvania residents awoke July 27 to see the familiar image of Hardball host Chris Matthews beaming out at them from the front page of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the Washington Post of the state capital area. The headline in the story by the Patriot-News's ace Washington bureau correspondent Brett Lieberman was titled "PRIMETIME PLAYER?"

The question mark was appropriate.

According to Lieberman, Matthews recently addressed a Gettysburg breakfast for 200 Pennsylvania city leaders. While he was unabashed about sharing his opinions on the issues of the day ("I have a point of view about things....I have an attitude"), the MSNBC star backed away in public when it came to answering questions about his intentions in a prospective 2010 race that, were he to run (as a Democrat, but of course), could pit him against incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter. Specter, currently recovering from 12 weeks of chemotherapy, has every intention of running for re-election. He will be 80 in 2010, yet as any observer of Pennsylvania politics can tell you, underestimating the veteran five-term Senator for any reason is a mistake. No less than Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, says he has advised Matthews that a race against Specter would be "tough."

BUT QUITE BEYOND the usual issues of the day in a Senate race, if Matthews decides to give up his hosting duties at Hardball the race could take on another, more interesting question than the perennial debate about, say, the economy or terrorism.

To begin, the plus Matthews would bring to a race for Democrats is his visibility. Name recognition in a state this size is no small thing. Yet the recognition Matthews brings is as a result of his gold-plated membership in what Rush Limbaugh humorously -- and with a zinging accuracy -- calls "the Drive-Bys." The Drive-Bys are the mainstream liberal media who, in the style of gangsters, drive by the scene of the latest event, turning their cameras, microphones, and print headlines into Tommy guns. Stopping long enough to create journalistic chaos they quickly speed away, on to their next target completely oblivious to their herd mentality and the anger or amusement they leave behind with average Americans. Matthews, a frequent Limbaugh foil, has created a career for himself as what one might call a Drive-By "capo."

Way back in the early 1970s, Philadelphian Matthews ran for Congress and lost. Like lots of other American kids in love with politics he got to Washington anyway, beginning his career as a Capitol Hill cop and eventually becoming a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a top aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill. From there he jumped to the media, first as a columnist and then a TV host. Hardball is nothing if not Matthews' creation, and therein lies his problem.

If one loves the minutia of politics, Hardball is a fun show to watch. Several years ago I sat in the studio as Matthews did the show. It is, by definition, a show that revolves around what is indisputably the conventional wisdom of the Drive-Bys. Matthews has transformed himself from Churchill admirer to a thorough-going anti-Iraq war drum beater, well in sync with his liberal media peers. His show is regularly filled with people who embody the herd mentality of Inside the Beltway, inevitably setting up Matthews or his Drive-By guests when someone with an unconventional view sits down for a talk. Watching Matthews explode in 2004 at conservative columnist Michelle Malkin over the issue of the Swift Boat veterans' attack on then Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry was a classic of the genre. Matthews was genuinely shocked to the point of spluttering outrage that the image of Kerry-as-war hero could be creditably taken on by anybody. He laid into Malkin, completely not understanding that outside the Herd there were Vietnam vets aplenty, many with longer and more noteworthy war records than Kerry, who did indeed have starkly different views of the Senator's Vietnam history. Views that could -- and would -- make an impact with voters. It was an important political point that left both Matthews and the rest of the Drive-By Herd stunned -- and eventually helped defeat Kerry.

This kind of thing happens again and again to the Drive-Bys. So insulated and isolated are they from America and average Americans they are utterly unable to see the world through a non-Drive-By lens. To watch Matthews work the crowd at a White House Correspondents dinner is to see a Drive-By capo in his natural habitat. To think they really understand what's going on in the lives of the constituents of, say, those 200 Pennsylvania city leaders Matthews spoke to over breakfast in Gettysburg is something else again.

This is surely counted as a dilemma for Matthews. He is paid, again according to Lieberman, a healthy $5 million for his MSNBC contract. In a conversation I had with Matthews several years ago he said that he was earning too much money to get back into politics himself. But whether his view on this -- a natural view when one has kids in school -- has changed or not, the core problem of giving up his job and his berth in the Drive-By Establishment to move home for a Senate run is more than a simple question.

PENNSYLVANIANS ARE NOTORIOUSLY touchy about being used. Unlike its northern neighbor New York, which fancies itself as the sophisticated home of finance and media too above-it-all to worry about the residential pedigree of Senate candidates like Hillary Clinton, James Buckley or Robert Kennedy, William Penn's namesake state is decidedly of a different frame of mind. Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum has the "former" in front of his name today because a lot of his constituents -- including conservative Republicans -- felt that he had "gone native" -- representing Washington to Pennsylvania rather than representing Pennsylvania in Washington. The fact that he had acquired a large Leesburg, Virginia home for his family didn't help. While the state has sent to the Senate people as different as my former boss, the late John Heinz, Specter and Santorum's victorious opponent Bob Casey, all three had or have very much in common a thorough-going identification with the state. Heinz's identification with Pittsburgh, Specter's with Philadelphia and Casey's with Scranton played a critical role in defining each man to the rest of the state. They were very much a local presence as well as a state presence.

Matthews has little of this kind of identification. In 2005 he was awarded the Pennsylvania Society's Gold Medal at the group's annual black-tie December gathering at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. While the award is a prestigious one among Pennsylvania elites in political terms, there are probably not ten average Pennsylvanians who could identify the award, much less care about who gets it. The fact that Senator Specter has also received the award similarly is a ho-hum for voters. Certainly this kind of thing brings little to a Senate race. Television celebrity as a shouting Drive-By won't make up for this lack of identification either. In fact, if there is a Matthews well known in Pennsylvania politics it is Chris's brother Jim, a Montgomery County Commissioner who was the losing GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006. Yes, Jim is a Republican. In its own way, his brother's loss only points up the problem with Matthews' celebrity. Jim Matthews' GOP gubernatorial running mate was ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, someone with a huge positive celebrity ID in the state, particularly in Western Pennsylvania. The Swann-Matthews ticket was crushed by the Democrats' sitting Governor Ed Rendell.

The hardball question Matthews has to decide is whether he would seek to get the kind of ID he needs as a thorough-going, do-or-die Pennsylvanian. It would, necessarily, involve giving up his suburban Washington home (he lives in Maryland), moving back to Pennsylvania (the Philadelphia area presumably), and quite visibly plunging into the life of his home state. This is where the rubber hits the road for Matthews. The bottom line question he will have to answer for himself is just how much he really does want to trade his Hardball life for that of a community member and candidate -- a candidate who stands just as much chance of losing a Senate election as any other candidate does. Could he wake up the morning after a defeat and not only not feel that he's made a serious professional mistake -- but be really happy to be home in Pennsylvania for good? Would he even stay?

Matthews might want to look at the example of West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller. A New Yorker, Rockefeller discovered West Virginia as a young man seeking to escape the shadow of the family name and the looming presence of his Republican uncle -- New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Moving to West Virginia, getting involved with the Democrats' so-called war on poverty, Jay Rockefeller quickly got elected to the legislature. His famously moneyed presence was hard to miss. Yet when he reached for the higher office people had long known he coveted, Rockefeller was defeated in his race for governor. The reason was equally hard to miss. West Virginians, like their border neighbors in Pennsylvania, didn't like to think they were being used. So they refused Rockefeller their votes -- obviously waiting to see whether he would take the occasion of his defeat to pack his bags and leave. To his credit, Rockefeller stayed -- and sits in the U.S. Senate still today, after finally winning the governorship following a stint as a local college president.

Shortly after moving home to Pennsylvania myself several years ago, leaving my own Washington career behind, I wrote a column for the Patriot-News that mocked an idea Matthews expressed on his show following the 2004 election and the defeat of John Kerry. At the time, the Drive-Bys, but of course, were simply stunned that Bush could have defeated Kerry. In their eyes Kerry was a war hero, a smart, sophisticated guy with serious knowledge of the world. Why, he could even speak French! How could he have possibly lost to that Texas imbecile who was never really elected president in the first place? Matthews' suggestion, repeated by ABC News president David Westin on a CNBC show then hosted by Drive-By fave Tina Brown, was that the Drive-Bys hire a "foreign correspondent." To cover -- yes -- Red State America. Seriously! The Washington Post was so taken with the concept that it dispatched a reporter on what was called -- no kidding -- a "bold journey" to "set sail into the crimson heart of America."

I volunteered for the job, mentioning how as a "foreign correspondent" not only did I own a trench coat I could serve as a guide for the Drive-By media's voyage into the vast regions of the great, mysterious, beating "crimson heart" of the Red beast. Did their producers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles want a feminism piece? How about a story on all those female goat ropers at the Pennsylvania Farm Show? Did they need something exotic like examples of freedom and patriotism? No problem. That's only exotic in Matthews' Drive-By land. Those things are easy to find here. A short journey to that great cigar shop in Altoona would do the trick. If you wade through all the politically incorrect smoke in the shop with your camera, you will find a framed thank-you note from a local soldier stationed in Baghdad. Thanking the shop owner for a care package of stogies. A quick tour of freedom and patriotism at work all in one place. Did the producers want a look at bigotry? Easy. An exploration with Pennsylvania friends and neighbors as to why the Post described the denizens of Red America as "stupid and selfish and sanctimonious" as well as "downright religious fanatics and bigots" would surely prove fascinating to Drive-Bys. Perhaps the discussion could take place after church? Just maybe the bigots might turn out to be the ones in -- gasp! -- New York, Los Angeles, and Washington newsrooms!

HAVING CONFESSED to television's Stephen Colbert that the job he always wanted was to be a U.S. Senator, Matthews will soon enough have to make a decision as to whether this is a serious thought or a particularly public fantasy. Running for the Senate in any state requires time, money, political smarts and, as they say of candidates on Hardball, a fire in the belly. In Pennsylvania, being a Drive-By celebrity is meaningless to a Lancaster farmer trying to keep the family farm, a Pittsburgh steelworker watching the rise of energy prices not only cause him problems at the pump but at the plant, or a Harrisburg Mom worried that the school she is sending her kids to every day just isn't getting the job done. They could not possibly care less who said what at a Washington dinner party, or whether you enjoyed your visit to the Left Coast to schmooze with Leno or thought you were portrayed accurately on the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine or by a comedian on Saturday Night Live.

Actually being a serious candidate for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania involves taking the risk that you will lose. Of giving up something -- like a TV career -- knowing full well you may not be able to get it back. Of having, as they say, some skin in the game.

Does Chris Matthews really have the fire in the belly to run for the United States Senate from Pennsylvania? Or is this just an ego-booster? What would he do if he won? More importantly, what would he do if he lost? Would he stay in his home state and become a serious member of the Pennsylvania community as Rockefeller did in West Virginia -- or run back to Washington in search of re-entry onto the Drive-By party list?

Those are Hardball questions. Can Hardball's creator answer them?

Stay tuned.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.