Among Republican campaign officials, some ignoramuses — of which there are many in the GOP campaign ranks — are telling Politico that U.S Rep. Joseph Cao, R-New Orleans, has no chance of winning re-election. I’d like to take all the said ignoramuses into a dark alley with some boxing gloves. As has been the case for at least a quarter century, Washington Republicans have no clue how Louisiana politics work, have a propensity to screw up Louisiana politics, and are a menace to Louisiana Republican candidates. Just as I wrote twice, two years ago, that Cao could win his race for Congress, before the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) found the half a brain cell necessary to figure out that it should be trying to help Cao win, I again am here to explain this to any conservative who cares: Objectively speaking, Cao (pronounced Gow, rhymes with cow) has an even-money chance to hold his seat. His odds would be better still if national conservatives donated some money.
Before explaining the electoral politics, it’s worth explaining why conservatives should care. Other utter ignoramuses in the conservative ranks seem to think it really doesn’t matter if Cao wins or not. “He’s a RINO,” they say. “We can’t count on him.”
Give me a break. So what if Joseph Cao isn’t a movement conservative? So what if he’s a centrist economically? He’s a former Jesuit seminarian with competing impulses: one, the impulse of compassion, the impulse of the “social Gospel” that teaches concern about the welfare of “the least of these”; and two, the impulse born of lessons learned from personal experience and observation that some sorts of “aid” are counterproductive and that the best sort of compassion is that which promotes self-reliance rather than dependence. From that standpoint, every single offer of government aid becomes a test of practicality: Does the aid do more good than harm? Does it foster self-sufficiency or, instead, long-term dependence? What are the details of the legislation? How will it work in practice? And how will the costs be borne? Can they be afforded? On the other hand, can they not be afforded because the societal costs of governmental inaction would be worse?
These are not the questions asked by a conservative purist, of course. But they are not illegitimate questions. They are questions of principle. They are questions of somebody thoughtful. Ideology doesn’t enter. The ideology of “true believers” is dangerous. (Hint: Read Eric Hoffer.) What matters is philosophical principle, adhered to in the fire of contention. What also matters is a proper understanding of the American system. Members of Congress are neither purely delegates nor purely representatives. They are delegated authority to use their best judgment while lawmaking. But they also are supposed to represent the views and best interests of their constituents. Their job is to do both at the same time to the best of their ability, to reconcile these sometimes conflicting roles, and to do so with integrity.
Imagine, then, that you represent a district that is 61% black and that voted 75% for Barack Obama for president. But you have doubts about whether it really is compassionate for government always to be the first option to help poor people get on their feet. You have doubts about whether government aid will work in practice, and about whether it can be afforded. These are prudential doubts. So what you do is you work and work; you tend your political garden; you provide tremendous constituent service; you listen to all sides; you study the legislation before you vote; and you straddle the fence for a long time not because you are weak, but because you are legitimately trying to work out what’s best for your constituents and for the country.
But one thing you do know: That which you believe is utterly immoral is something you can never support, no matter what some of your constituents think. And if, like Joseph Cao, you think that abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, a killing that can never be countenanced, then you never, ever, ever budge in your opposition to having government pay for abortions or otherwise giving positive sanction to abortions. And, no matter the pressure on you on that account, you stand with courage in favor of life, and you do not yield. (And if pro-life groups don’t fall all over themselves raising money for you in return, you still don’t yield, even if they are utterly stupid.)
You also know, from personal experience, that Communism is evil. You escaped the Vietcong in the cargo hold of an airplane fleeing Saigon when you were eight years old. Your father was held and beaten in a prison camp for many years after that. You know that the United States is a land of freedom and opportunity, and that it stands for what is best in the world while totalitarians of all sorts must be opposed. So (even though your height barely tops five feet), you stand tall for freedom.
That’s what Cao has done. And while conservatives may prefer somebody who will vote like Milton Friedman would want, or who will balance the budget like the Gingrich-Livingston-Kasich brigades of 1995-1997, or who will drink from the intellectual cup of William F. Buckley, those same conservatives are fools if they don’t understand that somebody who will be in the middle is far better than someone always on the left. Those same conservatives, if they are pro-life, are fools if they don’t appreciate that somebody who is pro-life by conviction is better than somebody decidedly pro-choice. And they really are pathetic fools if they don’t appreciate a firm anti-Communist, a believer in freedom and self-reliance, a lover of America, and a man of deep integrity.
You particularly appreciate him if he keeps his integrity even while opposed by powerful interests from a city notorious for political corruption. In fact, you don’t just appreciate him; you think he’s a gem.
Yet here are the GOP Pooh-Bahs who think Cao now holds his seat in Congress only by fluke. They think he’s not worth the effort of saving because he can’t, politically, be saved. And yes, here are the same sorts of people who said Rick Santorum couldn’t win in 1990 or 1994 or 2000, and who didn’t think Marco Rubio could be a stronger candidate than Charlie Crist, or that Ronald Reagan was too old or too conservative ever to win in 1980. In short, their views aren’t worth considering. Their views are worthless.
Here is the situation on the ground. Before the campaign really heated up, Cao actually led the polls by a wide margin, because his hard work and sincerity have made him very popular among all races and ethnicities in the New Orleans area. Once the campaign heated up and he was re-identified in the black community as a Republican, he dropped behind. But internal polls — and my own anecdotal sources, as a native New Orleanian and veteran of New Orleans politics — show him now within a typical survey’s margin of error.
He also has momentum. National Democrats, thinking Cao a goner, have withdrawn campaign aid for Democratic opponent, state Rep. Cedric Richmond. But Richmond has a checkered past that the local media finally is starting to really focus on. Amidst other official ethics problems, Richmond lost his law license for lying in election qualifying papers in 2005. He’s also under fire, or under investigation, for alleged financial shenanigans involving a non-profit with which he has been closely associated.
And stories (not definitively substantiated) are rampant, including on local New Orleans blog sites, about several incidents in which Richmond allegedly hit former girlfriends. It’s nasty stuff, and at least semi-widely believed in the New Orleans political community. (I report it here neither to give it legitimacy nor to question its legitimacy, but to explain the political terrain now existent in the race.)
People outside of New Orleans don’t understand an attitudinal shift that has taken place there, across the entire community, white and black. The antipathy against corruption is now strong. People who have recovered from Katrina no longer have patience for the same shenanigans. And race matters less: In this still largely black majority city, the white Mitch Landrieu won election as mayor in a 66% landslide in an 11-way jungle primary. Sure, Landrieu is no conservative. But he’s competent, and no crook. And he lost twice earlier for mayor, back when people voted mostly along racial lines. His huge win this time shows a big change in cultural/political outlook.
Cao, for his part, already has secured endorsements from several major black preachers, from black Democratic assessor (a powerful local post) Erroll Williams, from respected black Democratic primary loser and state Rep. Juan LaFonta, and from several top (white) Democratic City Councilwomen. And as this story goes to press, I am told with assurance that perhaps the single most beloved New Orleans Saint, former All-Pro running back Deuce McAllister — more admired across racial lines than even Drew Brees or Archie Manning, a love born not just for his work ethic on the field but through McAllister’s unfailing support for keeping the Saints in New Orleans when even owner Tom Benson seemed inclined otherwise — also will endorse Cao this week. This is (sorry for the pun) a game-changer. It’s immensely important.
Even before all this, Cao had a real chance. Clancy DuBos, perhaps the single most perspicacious and even-handed New Orleans political reporter for the past 30 years, explained it back in a Sept. 7 column:
Cao has worked hard to establish his bona fides among black voters, and no doubt he’ll do better in black precincts this year…. If turnout roughly mirrors voter registration, Cao is toast. Fortunately for the incumbent, turnout rarely reflects voter registration. Historically, black turnout is anywhere from 5 to 20 percentage points lower than white turnout, typically around 10 percent lower in major elections such as this one…. If the “differential” on Nov. 2 is 10 percent or less, Cao will need a miracle to win. If it’s more than 15 percent — and if Cao can garner at least 15 percent of the black vote — he could squeak out another victory.
Again, this was before Richmond began to look as sleazy as some now think he is. It was before the spate of Democratic endorsements for Cao. And it was before the endorsement from Deuce got loose.
It is also true that the NRCC is spending the maximum allowable $87,000 in “coordinated” funding on Cao’s behalf — a sign that at least some D.C. Republicans recognize a winnable race when then see one. All of which means, objectively speaking, that this remains a race to watch, and to care about. And it’s a race from which a barely-escaped-with-his-life refugee, a physics-major-turned-Jesuit-seminarian/philosophy-student-turned-lawyer-turned-surprise-congressman, cannot be counted out. Nothing holds down Joseph Cao. Nothing.
A Shakespeare quote, from the play Henry VIII, might apply: “What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted! Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just.”
ADDENDUM: Shortly before midnight last night, Rep. Cao’s father passed away. This is a man who suffered in a Vietcong “re-education” camp for seven years. One imagines that as badly as John McCain, Jeremiah Denton, and other Americans suffered in their prison camps, South Vietnamese officers who fought the Vietcong to the bitter end probably were treated far, far worse. Remember, this was after the international spotlight, and the power of the United States, was/were gone as a threat to the Viet Communists, to keep them at least somewhat human.
My condolences are with Rep. Cao and his family. May My Quang Cao rest in peace. — Quin Hillyer