BOSTON — No one can say that I don’t vote my conscience, polls be damned. Twice I have cast Republican primary ballots for Alan Keyes, undeterred when the results rolled in showing more than 97 percent of the vote going against me each time.
Whenever I would travel to Maryland to visit relatives, I would religiously listen to Keyes’ radio talk show “America’s Wake-Up Call.” From the beginning, when he would shout “Wake uuuuup America: it’s later than you think,” to the very end I would sit transfixed as the former Reagan appointee effortlessly moved back and forth from detailed discussions of the nation’s founding documents to the day’s current events.
Alan Keyes isn’t everybody’s bag, even on the right, but I confess that I’ve always liked him. Anyone who can mix it up as passionately and intelligently on issues to dear to my heart like padlocking the IRS and protecting the unborn is okay in my book.
Given this history, I suppose I should be ecstatic that the Illinois Republican Party has offered Keyes its nomination to the U.S. Senate. And after the roller-coaster ride Illinois Republicans have been on with prospects ranging from Jack Ryan to Mike Ditka, I can understand why they would want to get this candidate selection over with. Yet I find myself hoping that Keyes nevertheless spurns their entreaties to run.
It’s not so much because it makes conservatives look at least mildly ridiculous to have become apoplectic over Hillary Clinton running for Senate in a state she never lived in, only to recruit a guy who lives in Maryland for the GOP slot in Illinois when it’s convenient. At least Elizabeth Dole lived in North Carolina at some point in her life.
AS HE DOES SO OFTEN, however, Keyes said it best when asked what he thought about the idea of running for Senate in a state where he’s never lived: “As a matter of principle, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” And considering that he takes the Senate’s role as a guardian of state prerogatives in our federal system seriously enough to favor the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which forced the direct election of senators, it is hard to see how this would be “consonant with federalism” as Keyes understands it — one of his criteria for accepting the nod. But partisanship has produced greater inconsistencies and it can be said that Jim Buckley was a solid conservative senator for New York even though he was actually from Connecticut.
Nor is it so much an issue that Keyes’ past history of Senate bids in a state where he actually lived doesn’t bode well for his chances this time, although that’s true too. When Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ (D-MD) 1988 Republican challenger dropped out, Keyes stepped into the breach. Despite public support from the Gipper himself and a campaign managed by former Harvard roomie Bill Kristol, the conservative firebrand won just 38 percent of the vote. He tried again in 1992, taking on uberliberal Sen. Barbara Mikulski. There was a dustup over the appropriateness of Keyes paying himself a salary out of his campaign funds and he ended up drawing just 29 percent of the vote.
If I recall correctly, the carpetbagger charge came up in those elections, too. Despite the fact that Keyes lived in Maryland, he had only moved there while serving in government.
BUT THE MAIN REASON I WOULD like to see Keyes tell his Chicago recruiters to take a long walk off something short is that they don’t seem to have the right motives for approaching him to be the candidate. A national search could have discovered a candidate with a better record of winning elections. Race seems to have been a factor. Is it a coincidence that Andrea Grubb Barthwell, the other finalist for the nomination, was also African-American?
State Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford, a member of the panel that made the offer to Keyes, insists that it is. “It just turned out to be that way,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We don’t look at color the way the Democrats do.” Maybe so, but you don’t have to be a thoroughgoing cynic to wonder if the Illinois GOP was thinking: “The Democrats have an articulate, Harvard-educated black candidate who gives great speeches. We need an articulate, Harvard-educated black candidate who gives great speeches.”
Sadly, it has become a staple of GOP politicking to preach color-blindness in theory while aping the Democrats’ approach to racial preferences in practice. Keyes has long opposed such policies at great personal price, often being attacked by mean-spirited critics who challenge his racial authenticity — barbs white conservatives like me never have to endure when taking the same positions.
Certainly, a race between Keyes and Barack Obama would be exciting. It would result in the best Senate candidate debates Illinoisans have seen since, say, Lincoln-Douglas (recall, however, that the Democrats won that race). But hopefully while deliberating, Keyes contemplates whether he was extended this offer for the right reason.
These suspicions are not a reflection on Keyes’ talents and intellect, which I have long admired. Consider that Thomas Sowell, one of the greatest public intellectuals in America today, was once offered a job in the Reagan administration. The transition team recruiter made the mistake of trying to sell the position by noting that Sowell would be the first black appointed to Reagan’s Cabinet. According to the story, Sowell promptly hung up the phone.