Imagine you’re an incumbent Republican member of Congress in the months leading up to a contested primary election, and Fox News calls to see if you’d be interested in doing an on-air interview to roast the Obama administration’s continued Benghazi sham. Without pause, you’d clear the calendar for a great opportunity for exposure—one your upstart opponent certainly won’t get—with a national audience. It’s a no-brainer, right?
In the Colosseum
Summer in the south can be a soul-crushing experience. In South Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District especially, the humidity traps still heat and mosquitoes, made worse by the torturous proximity of cool mountains to the west, and breezy ocean to the east. But in July of 2009, Trey Gowdy faced something far more malicious. A serial killer was on the loose in Cherokee County—and the way Gowdy talks about it, the memories still seem fresh. “That whole region was paralyzed by fear, because you just don’t have serial killers,” he says. “It’s our worst nightmare.”
State of the Union responses are masochistic affairs. After the president addresses the congressional chamber to thunderous applause, the camera cuts to a dimly lit room in a local funeral home, where the respondent speaks to a stoic audience of mahogany furniture. The members of the minority party watch this, praying their champion doesn’t suffer a sudden bout of narcolepsy or make a voracious lunge for a Poland Spring bottle. The outcome is determined on the same principle as “The Most Dangerous Game”: You can’t really win; you can only survive.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers survived. The congresswoman, relatively unknown outside Washington state, beat the rigged format and garnered mostly positive reviews by telling her life story: She grew up on a farm, worked at her parents’ fruit stand, was the first in her family to go to college, and splits her time between Congress and raising three kids. It was a salve for the Republican Party. After months of “War on Women” nonsense, suddenly the GOP’s public face was an affable conservative woman who personifies hard work and family values—the sunny side of the Republican philosophy.
When Dr. Benjamin Rush described John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as “the North and South poles of the American Revolution,” he was drawing attention to the cultural gap between Adams’s fastidious New England and Jefferson’s romantic Virginia.
Over time, this gap has been partially bridged. The south pole has tugged in millions of northerners, thanks to the black hole of Washington, D.C., leaving Virginia among the most culturally divided states in the nation. Electoral maps reveal a largely red state wearing a cerulean skullcap: the outskirts of Washington, of course. But the density of liberal voters in the growing suburbs and exurbs has been enough to cause a political shift that’s pushed Democrats into all of Virginia’s statewide elected offices and turned this former Republican stronghold into a presidential toss-up.
As Scott Walker prepared to give his State of the State speech on January 22, protesters gathered, as they have every year—indeed, nearly every day—under the granite dome of the Wisconsin capitol building. They chanted “Shame!” and sang and held signs with such enlightening messages as “labor built america, greed will destroy it” and “up your but-get walker.” In other words, some things in Wisconsin haven’t changed.
Then again, some things have: “The crowd numbers less than one hundred,” wrote one protester who posted photos online. “The numbers may be small but the resounding voices are reassuring that hope is still alive and the fight will continue…Occupy Everything in 2014!”
The Senate isn’t known for its candor. Politicians tend to respond to even the most penetrating question with a warmed-over string of mawkish clichés cooked up by a pack of slimy consultants sitting in a K Street conference room and carefully steered through a gauntlet of sunlight-deprived focus groups. Ask your typical Republican senator his opinion on, say, allegations of improper NSA surveillance of our allies, and his answer will sound something like this:
We need to make sure that the NSA can do its job to prevent every terrorist attack, while also respecting the privacy of every solitary American. I’ve talked to my constituents back home and they’re sick and tired of these special interests corrupting our politics. They know that this great country was founded on freedom and that freedom isn’t free. Also, Ronald Reagan.