Notes on the Breakfast Table, Page 3
Representative Bruce Long’s discomfort when the U.S. Senate primary race came up during his East Bay GOP Breakfast introduction of Mayor Steve Laffey spoke volumes. It might go too far to speculate about an underlying fear that a primary will alert Rhode Islanders to the fact that they have erroneously elected a Republican. Whatever the case, the idea that somebody within the party would challenge a Republican incumbent apparently requires explanation of the appropriate response.
The Laffey campaign seems to have recognized that need and has — wisely — left expression of the magnitude of its rebellion to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, for example. From the candidate, himself, the message is that “it’s just a race,” as he put it during his breakfast speech. Laffey appears, also, to have made a conscious effort to use the more-inclusive and better-sounding “we” (as in “we had a message”) — although the effort at times seemed so conscious as to be humorous (“a combination of me… and us!”).
But this is all strategic analysis. The bottom line is that Laffey is undeniably compelling on personal and rhetorical levels — eliciting, for inconsequential example, smiles across the tables when he patted his daughter’s head with a “hey beautiful” as she strode nonchalantly between him and his audience. It was even endearing in a regular-guy way when he cited Animal House mistakenly in place of Animal Farm (an error sure to attract the attention of Jonah Goldberg conservatives everywhere).
Ultimately, though, the reminder of these qualities finally helped me to give form to my doubts about Laffey’s campaign for U.S. Senate. The tremendous integrity that he rightly trumpets in his political biography — dropping everything and running for mayor to save his hometown from corruption and poor government — is the stuff of primetime dramas. It does not, however, translate immediately into compelling motivation to become a Senator. The need to make that translation is obviously on Laffey’s mind, but to my mind he does not manage the accomplishment.
“I see the American Dream dying across America” explains neither the vantage point from which he made the observation nor the reason that he individually can do more to remedy the problem from Congress rather than (at least at first) within the local and state government. I’d suggest that the people of Mississippi and California would be better able to save their own American Dreams than would a Rhode Islander reaching out to those states through the federal legislature.
The more pragmatic argument that Laffey makes on this count is that the RI GOP needs a “strong leader at the top of the ticket,” to cause not only votes, but participation and recruitment, as well, to trickle down. During his speech, Laffey pulled out a few pages of a table tracking registered voter trends by town and, probably correctly, took credit for Republican advances in his city of Cranston. It isn’t at all clear, however, that a Washington politician would have that effect; indeed, if strengthening the party locally is among Laffey’s goals, staying local for a while would seem more likely to achieve it. (I hope the mayor would agree that people change their political affiliation not on the sheepish basis of admiration for the guy at the top of the list, but because they have seen his policies put into action in their own towns.)
Bill Harsch is correct that Rhode Island must begin electing state and local officials who will redefine their positions to be useful, rather than honorary and beholden to established powers. I believe that Steve Laffey had unimpeachable motives to improve the town that raised him. I believe that he’s brazen and compelling enough to force similar improvements on the state surrounding that town.
Perhaps the most astute observation that Laffey made during his speech was that opponents of the policies that he espouses “view the world as a static thing.” From the economy to energy usage to cultural changes, the world is not static, but ever shifting. The same is true of public offices and their places in the government dynamic. If Laffey were to play a prominent role in redefining the Rhode Island system as an irrefutably representative one — a prosperous and irrefutably representative one — his motivation for further advancement would require no translation, and the in-party discomfort would belong to those who are afraid less of the disruption that comes with disagreement than of the success of the other side.