CNN’s Tucker Carlson, no starry-eyed idealist he, once wrote that a speech he heard Alan Keyes give while seeking the GOP’s nomination for President in 2000 was the best speech of the election campaign. In the very next sentence Carlson corrected himself to note that by definition, every speech Alan Keyes gave that year was the best speech of the Presidential campaign.
I’ll never forget the night in Jacksonville, Florida, when my wife and I listened to Focus on the Family with James Dobson on the radio of my high mileage Honda Accord. Dobson excitedly announced he was going to play a tape of an impromptu speech given by Alan Keyes at a gathering of Republican presidential candidates. His tone caught our attention. During the half hour that followed, we heard Alan Keyes speak for the first time. His performance was electric, leaving me stunned by his talent and leading my wife to express an interest in politics for the first time, well, ever. Although I had an entry level job and my wife was in medical school leveraged to the hilt with student loans, we sent the 1996 Keyes campaign a check for $50 a few days later.
During the primary race that followed, I remember watching Ralph Reed give an interview to a reporter from CNN. When asked who he thought should capture the nomination, Reed gave the nod to Bob Dole. I reeled in my seat on our broken down futon. If the head of the Christian Coalition could bypass Keyes’ obvious oratorical gifts and prophetic moral conviction for an unexciting parliamentarian, I concluded the organization had misplaced priorities. Dole lost to Clinton and went on to make big bucks pitching Viagra more effectively than he ever pitched himself or his message to the American people. Despite making hardly a ripple at the polls, Keyes became the most sought after pro-life speaker in the nation.
Years have passed and I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot more of Alan Keyes. He spoke at a Salvation Army Church one night in Atlanta without notes for nearly an hour and left our group standing and shouting for more. When he engaged in debates with George W. Bush and John McCain, it was not difficult to conclude Keyes was the most well-spoken and quickest-thinking of the group.
Of course, Keyes’ gifts as a speaker and thinker have never really been in question. The dig has always been that he couldn’t win, that he wasn’t the mainstream choice. That criticism seems to be true thus far in presidential campaigns, but where’s the sense of fun? Friends in “the movement” and I have often happily anticipated the prospect of Alan Keyes shredding Al Gore or any other Democrat to be named in open debate. Though we all know he could potentially lose a presidential race by Goldwateresque margins, we also agree there could be no happier way to go down in flames. If you want to see Democrats answer for abortion, just send Dr. Keyes to the podium.
Before assuming that Keyes will run this year just to prove a point, one must consider that in the Illinois Senate race, we have a very different situation than in 1996 or 2000. Keyes isn’t running for the top job in American politics, just to be one voice out of a hundred in the Senate. What Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, or Barbara Boxer have been for the left, Keyes could be for the right. Now that the Illinois GOP is left without any good options in its homegrown crop, Keyes is a natural choice. Here, for the first time since he became a national name, Keyes has the opportunity to find out just how much support there is in the conservative evangelical and Catholic communities. There will be no other Republican available to “be more mainstream” or “have a better shot.” We’ll learn how Keyes does as the only conservative or GOP name on the ticket. As the party’s nominee, the press will be unable to ignore him. Who can resist it?
Besides providing an excellent field test for Alan Keyes’ electability since he has become a well-known figure (something that wasn’t true in his Maryland campaigns), another political consideration looms large. George W. Bush will need every vote he can get to have a chance in Illinois. I’m betting Alan Keyes can improve turnout significantly. Even a single percentage point could prove crucial. When asked why he ran for president when he obviously had no chance, Keyes answered that as long as he was in the race there were plenty of good Christian folks who would pay attention to politics instead of tending their backyard gardens. While Bush has strong appeal to Christian voters, Keyes has the ability to rouse many who think politics irredeemable and would not otherwise participate.
There is no downside here. The federalism argument has long ago been breached by liberals like Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia and Hillary Clinton in New York. Allowing federalism to thwart this project would be like letting an opponent repeatedly beat you with a rubber hose while you restrict yourself to the Geneva Convention. Alan Keyes is making the right choice in taking his show on the road in Illinois. If he wins, the GOP will add a seat and have a better chance at maintaining control of the Senate, but the pro-life movement will have its best political ally since Reagan became President. For political observers, the Keyes-Obama matchup will rank second only to Bush-Kerry as the two black intellectuals have a showdown that promises to bypass the mundane in favor of the biggest questions about God, government, and what justice requires.