Charlie Harper: Stumped for right answers

August 20, 2013 

Today we're going to revisit the campaign of 2012 in order to examine potential problems that Republicans at the national level face in order to achieve a majority while Republicans in Georgia attempt to maintain their overwhelming majority. That is, the problem of Republican primaries.

Late in the 2012 primary season, I had the honor of being asked to moderate a debate in Vidalia on behalf of the Montgomery & Toombs County Republican parties. There were four candidates attempting to replace Democratic Congressman John Barrow. They did not succeed.

The audience at this event was predictably partisan. It was, after all, a primary debate. Thus, it was largely considered a "family discussion" as to who should be the best nominee to take the seat for the Republicans. There was also a bit of hope in the air, as the recently redrawn 12th district was "adjusted" to be more amenable to the cause.

And yet, whether in a district drawn to be majority Republican or in a district drawn as a majority for the Democrats, primaries tend to be an exercise within a much smaller subset of the population. One that is, shall we say, a bit more resolute in their viewpoints and where there are very specific right and wrong answers to debate questions.

And such it was on this evening. On five successive questions, the candidates who wanted to replace John Barrow said they would not cut Social Security or Medicare as they represented covenants with our nation's' elderly. They would not cut defense spending as we were in a time of war and the contributions of those from Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart were vital to the defense of our nation and liberty as a whole. They saw a clear federal need for federal funding for the Port of Savannah as it was both a matter of foreign trade and interstate commerce. And under no circumstances would we raise taxes. We would in fact be cutting them if any of the four were elected.

And then, the sixth answer came to a question from Jim Galloway of the AJC, sitting to my right. He asked - as our members of Congress are about to be asked again - under what circumstances would these would-be newly minted members of Congress would vote to raise the debt ceiling. It was, as he noted, likely to be one of the first votes they were likely to consider as a member of Congress. And right along with the "correct" answer expected from the crowd, each declared under no uncertain terms would any of them vote to increase our nation's debt. We "have to live within our means" they said.

Each answer, standing alone, was the "right" one. But together, they represented a cognitive dissonance that now demonstrates the chasm between various scorecards from conservative groups of purity verses real world realities of tough choices. Unfortunately, the next question was mine.

I asked, in recapping all the past answers, how a government that was currently borrowing almost 40 cents of every dollar spent could keep all entitlements, all national defense spending, pay our interest on the national debt, and add new spending on items like the Port of Savannah expansion. How could we do all this, representing well more than we were currently taking in, cut taxes, and then not borrow any more money within months.

The answer, given by the eventual nominee, was "We're going to cut the fat." It received wild applause. It was, after all, what the audience wanted to hear. It mattered not that the answer was rooted in neither reality nor math. It was merely the "correct" answer.

There are already too many "right" answers on the 2014 campaign trail. "No Amnesty" and "Repeal Obamacare" are two of too many. They are certainly the right answers for a primary, but general election voters - even those that naturally lean to the right - can see through partisan puffery and identify a lack of leadership and lack of a plan where there is none.

It is true that the non-presidential election of 2014 likely makes Georgia a safe Republican state for one more election cycle, depending on which flavor of "conservative" is selected in Georgia's primaries. And yet, general election voters are beginning to let it be known that the "right" answers, if not intellectually sound, may not be the correct ones.

Georgia 12 gave us a bit of a lesson in 2012. The major question that remains is how many Democratic victories will have to happen before Georgia Republicans acknowledge it.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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