Friday, February 25, 2005

Meeting Ed Bryant

I went to the Defenders of Freedom event Thursday night at which Senate Republican candidate Ed Bryant spoke. The Defenders are a non-partisan group dedicated to Conservative Constitutional principles. The whole event went off smoothly, so thanks to them.

It was pretty well attended for a forum so early in the campaign; an estimated 50 or so people were there. My thanks to AlphaPatriot for inviting me and nudging me out of the safe confines of Casa Dos Amigos. Fishkite was there as well and the three of us formed a kind of "blogger's corner" down front. You can read AlphaPatriot's account here, with pictures; Fishkite has an extensive write-up here.

Bryant looked pretty good. His voice was giving him trouble and had gone out the day before. But he spoke well and on a variety of subjects. He began with a veiled jab at candidates trying to "buy" the election, a remark clearly aimed at Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. I admit to knowing little about Corker, but Bill Hobbs comes through with a brief summation he posted earlier in the day. I'll say more about Corker later.

Bryant spoke of his biggest domestic concern: the Federal Courts. He warned of "activist judges" legislating from the bench and judges who want the new Federal sentencing guidelines loosened. He spoke as well of the importance of making sure conservative judges were appointed to the Supreme Court. Bryant mentioned "three, maybe four" openings on the Supreme Court in Bush's second term, which was news to me as I'd only figured on two. No one I spoke with later could figure out who the fourth might be.

Bryant brought up his entry into the House with the famous "Class of '94," the Newt Gingrich-inspired, Contract With America-supporting cohort of Republicans who took the majority. He used this partly to emphasise the need for a sympathetic and consevative Senate and, it seemed to me, to remind the group of the '94 cachet of conservative revolution. Bryant only lightly touched on Christian concerns of prayer, the Pledge, and public displays of religion.

His other major concern was the War on Terror. He didn't go into any detail, but mostly echoed the sentiments of a strong America and continuing to face terrorists abroad. When asked afterward, he seemed to dodge the question of border security with Mexico, a related issue. Another questioner wanted to know how he'd approach the two known nuclear threats, Iran and Korea. In both cases, he clearly emphasised diplomacy and talks, mixed with trade sanctions. He was very specific that America could not get into a ground war in Iran because we didn't have sufficient military strength to do so. Bryant also mentioned China as a future economic threat, but didn't go into details there.

There were a few points of concern on my part. When talking of our military, he repeated the now-discredited story from the soldier who confronted Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at an Iraq press conference with troops with a question about inadequate vehicle armor. The question, we later learned, was planted by a reporter, and the units in question had near 100% armor protection the next day anyway. I'm a bit troubled that he didn't have the facts on this and was using the false story. He needs to be clued in and drop it quick.

Some audience questions he seemed clearly unprepared for. Asked about trade agreements that reduce American sovereignty and shackle us to international norms that might conflict with American standards (remember the audience here), he was far too vague. Admittedly, the question was an odd one in the way it was phrased, but he didn't seem to have a command of facts at hand. He sounded lost.

He also evaded solid answers to our border problems with Mexico and the influx of illegal immigrants. He seemed to recognise the importance of Mexican workers to our economy, but also shied from taking clear stands one way or the other. Or so it seemed to me. I am growing tired of this glaring Republican inconsistency. Security is security and borders are borders. Don't guard the front doors and garage zealously only to leave the back screen doors wide open!

The biggest worry for libertarian me was his repeated use of the phrase "extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures." It was used in connection with changes to Senate filibuster rules on judicial nominations (He made a great point that if the Dems were in the position that the Republicans are now, they wouldn't hesitate a moment to change the rules to their benefit.) and the War on Terror. I have great trouble with exceptionalism like this. It sounded less like a call to unusual action carefully taken than a rationalisation of questionable tactics. I worry when someone sees a lot of "extraordinary" circumstances. It's an excuse; an easy action too lightly taken for conveniece sake.

Bryant also might have slipped a quick one past his audience. He talked about term limits a bit, sounding like he agreed they were a good idea, but he never actually said he'd set any on himself. It might have been sleight-of-hand, or just a mistake in making his point. Hard to call.

One good bit: he referred to former President Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill." The way he called up the image and used it sounded sincere; he conveyed it well.

This early in the season (only eighteen months to go!) he was more conversational and relaxed than rousing. He didn't seem to be testing out themes and ideas so much as bringing forward his past record and updating it. That's to be expected right now, I think. Overall, he cut a strong figure, undercut only by his voice problems, some evident tiredness, and his halting, vague answers on certain topics. Sharpening his presentation, getting a better handle on facts he should have at his command, and displaying that "fire in the belly" will help him sell himself better.

I got the chance to ask Mr. Bryant a question I think will be his biggest trouble. As I've noted here many times, the Bush White House has shown a disturbing tendency to back "moderate" Republicans with big names and ready fundraising profiles over more solid fiscal and social conservatives. Witness Riordan in California, Specter in Pennsylvania, Liddy Dole in North Carolina, etc. Bryant got whacked with this in 2002 when Lamar! Alexander got the nod over him and eventually won the primary and then the election.

I asked Bryant if he was aware of the problem and what he was doing to combat it. He said he was, and was working with contacts in the Senate Republican Committee to circumvent it this time. That's good to hear. Forewarned and forearmed is the way to enter the field of battle.

But in talking with some folks there, I learned a bit more about Corker. He's already amassed $2 million. Clearly, a lot of big money people are already lining up in his camp. A couple of folks felt that the "big money guys" around the state had decided to line up behind Corker, making Bryant's task an uphill one.

They felt that Corker has a pretty good lock on East Tennessee and would make sufficient inroads into our neck of the woods. Apparently, one local developer is hosting a fundraiser for Corker soon. Corker's getting a majority of the Knoxville-Chattanooga axis and only a significant number here (I heard 20%.) would be enough to keep the other two candidates (Hilleary and Bryant) from getting the votes to beat him. It's depressing math, and sounds too plausible.

The sense I got was that the "fix is in" for Corker, regardless of the actual campaign and primary process. And that two consecutive primary losses for Bryant would likely doom him politically.

Then there's the other main candidate, Van Hilleary. As Matt White at South End Grounds has noted:
If he [Hilleary], Ed Bryant and Beth Harwell are in the race, Tennessee will have to get used to three very frightening words, "Senator Bob Corker."
Hilleary and Bryant splitting the conservative base does open a swath for Corker to capture. One hopes that Hilleary will bow out to sharpen up the race between Bryant and Corker, but I'm not holding my breath.

One person I spoke with actually floated the idea of Bryant bowing out to take a run for the Governor's office in 2006! That would make for an interesting race, most definitely, but we're still left with Senator Corker (as I don't think Hilleary is ultimately a good or strong candidate). If the idea by the Rove White House team is to use "soft" Republicans to pave the way for more ideological conservatives later, I really hate to see the current generation of conservatives like Bryant pay the cost.

Anyway, I had a great time. I got my picture taken with Mr. Bryant and will post it when I get a copy. He tried to put his arm around me for the pose and couldn't because I'm just too danged big! We laughed about it. I got to see Mr. Bryant up close and liked what I met. I'd very much like to see him win. (Unless, of course, the Tennessee Libertarian Party finds a suitable candidate, and then principle wins out.) If the depressing news about Corker proves true, I hope a strategy can be devised to counter it. We'll see.

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