The Great T-Shirt Rebellion of 2013August 26, 2013 at 9:15 am | Posted in Political | 5 Comments
Tags: Bill Paulsen, Bylaws, Congress, constitution, David Gerson, Election, Endorsement, John Kline, Keith Downey, Matt Erickson, mngop, Party, Paul Tuschy, Republican Party of Minnesota, Walter Hudson
by Walter Hudson – August 26, 2013
The Great T-Shirt Rebellion of 2013 seems a title of appropriate grandeur for an inflated controversy splintering the liberty movement within the Republican Party of Minnesota and causing much rabble in the Second Congressional District. Social media caught fire over the weekend, and an online petition has formed asking state party chair Keith Downey to apologize after refusing to allow a challenger to Congressman John Kline to campaign from the MNGOP state fair booth.
Over the weekend, activists Paul Tuschy and Matt Erickson showed up to work a volunteer shift at the booth, each wearing campaign t-shirts promoting David Gerson for Congress. Gerson ran against the party’s endorsement in 2012, challenging incumbent John Kline. Fulfilling his fiduciary responsibility to protect the party’s brand, Chairman Downey asked Tuschy and Erickson to turn their Gerson campaign shirts inside-out while representing the party at the booth. Were that as far as the story went, it would hardly merit a mention.
Alas, social media lit up with protest from key activists within the liberty movement, including former Downey opponent in the race for party chair, Bill Paulsen. Sharing a photo of Erickson with an inside-out t-shirt, Paulsen asked:
Before analyzing further, we must pause to make an important note. Any value judgment of Congressman Kline’s performance in office or Mr. Gerson’s candidacy to replace him lays wholly outside consideration of whether Chairman Downey’s action was appropriate. Regardless of who the people involved are or what they believe, the standards applied to the situation must be administered neutrally. Those protesting Downey allege that his action demonstrates a bias toward Kline. Yet whether the incumbent in question were Kline or the second coming of Ron Paul, the role of the party remains the same, as does the appropriate response from the chair. To answer Paulsen’s question, Downey would not have asked Erickson to reverse his t-shirt if it was a John Kline shirt, not because John Kline is John Kline, but because John Kline is the incumbent Republican congressman. Were Mr. Gerson the incumbent in the Second District, he would be afforded the same treatment. At issue are the roles of these men, not who they are or what ideological perspective they represent.
The central premise under contention is whether the party’s endorsement carries a reasonable expectation of material support beyond Election Day. Paulsen’s point that “neither Kline nor Mr. Gerson is endorsed for the 2014 race” implies that the party should treat both as if neither has a claim to party support, as if Kline were a guy off the street rather than an elected Republican congressman. Indeed, the substantive debate on social media pivots entirely on this point. Either the endorsement carries through an elected Republican’s term until another candidate is endorsed, or it ends on Election Day. There’s nuance on particulars, but these are essentially the sides of the debate.
It may surprise some to learn that the state party constitution and bylaws are largely silent on the effect of endorsement. There’s a bit which ensures that the benefits of endorsement are conveyed only by bodies representative of the candidate’s district. That portion makes reference to “the commitment of party resources, finances and volunteers.” However, there’s little else I can see which specifies the scope and limits of endorsement. The silence on such finer points leaves the matter open to interpretation, which enables the spectrum of opinion regarding what the endorsement means and whether it continues beyond Election Day.
Facing a void of clear written directives, we must reference tradition and common sense. Endorsed candidates who go on to be elected are promoted on party unit websites, at state and county fairs, through official social media, and in parades. They also routinely receive campaign contributions directly from party units. The duty to secure an incumbent’s position is implicit in the party’s stated purpose of electing Republican candidates. From Article 1 of the constitution:
The object of the party shall be the maintenance of government by and for the people according to the Constitution and the laws of the United States and the State of Minnesota, and the implementation of such principles as may from time to time be adopted by party conventions. To obtain this object it is essential the party shall organize at all levels to elect Republicans to public office.
Implicit in organizing to elect Republicans to public office is organizing to keep them there. Incumbents have a number of electoral advantages which the party has an objective interest in maintaining. That’s because the craft of legislation requires more than a single elected official. Despite President Barack Obama’s many actions to the contrary, not even his office may craft law unilaterally. If the party’s purpose is the “maintenance of government… and the implementation of such principles as may from time to time be adopted by party conventions,” it is essential to support incumbents in order to foster and maintain the majorities necessary to craft law. That’s why party units promote and support their elected officials, and why the party’s endorsement remains in effect throughout their term or until another candidate is endorsed.
Indeed, the party’s support of incumbents makes it incredibly difficult to stage an effective challenge. No one knows that better than Chairman Downey, who ascended to the State House after successfully earning the party’s endorsement over an incumbent in his district. Protesters accuse Downey of applying a double standard. In truth, he is enforcing the same standard which was applied to his own candidacy.
It should be difficult to challenge incumbents for endorsement. Incumbents are proven winners, and thus fulfill the party’s stated purpose. Protesters argue that the difficulty of an endorsement challenge makes it that much harder to hold incumbents accountable, and there’s certainly truth to that. If an incumbent is not effectively implementing the party’s adopted principles – which many would argue of Congressman Kline – then activists need to be able to address that performance. Of course, addressing it with an ineffective and unproven alternative defeats the party’s purpose. If it were a simple matter to endorse anyone rising to challenge an incumbent, the process would not produce a candidacy as strong as that replaced. For those active more more than a year or two, it should be apparent by now that endorsement does not necessarily translate to an effective candidacy. Since electing Republicans to office is the party’s purpose, running them through a gauntlet which tests their viability makes the plainest of sense.
Having established the reasoning behind supporting elected Republicans, let’s consider the arguments being offered by those protesting Downey’s action. Of greatest significance is the argument already considered, that the party’s endorsement is only effective until Election Day. That notion is wholly contrived and has no basis in actual practice. As noted, the party has always promoted and materially supported its elected officials throughout their terms. Beyond that, consider what the party would look like if we did withdraw the benefits of endorsement after election. In that circumstance, you could theoretically have a challenger campaigning against our incumbent at our fair booth the day after the incumbent was elected, a ludicrous scenario which is nonetheless consistent with the protesters’ position.
In a time when the value of the party’s endorsement is already under threat by the remedial condition of the state party, the effort to move the primary from August to June, and the 2012 rule changes at the RNC, activists concerned with maintaining grassroots control of the party and its processes should be averse to any action which would further erode the value of endorsement. Were the party to comply with the protestors’ vision and withdrawal the benefits of endorsement from elected officials, incumbents would have significantly less incentive to seek endorsement in the first place. Let’s be honest with ourselves. The value of endorsement is the material support which comes with it. By arguing to reduce that support, those protesting Downey are arguing to reduce the value of the endorsement. How does that advance the cause of grassroots control?
Aside from the argument over what endorsement conveys, the other aspect of the protest is rehashing tired old memes about protectionism, elitism, and tyrannical authority. Such assertions may be aimed at Downey and the state executive committee. However, they actually insult caucus attendees and convention delegates. The party is not some alien entity which descends from Mount Olympus to control people’s lives. The party consists of people duly elected through a profoundly grassroots process, the same process which enabled supporters of Ron Paul to dominate in 2012. More to the point, Chairman Downey and a significant portion of the executive committee have all been recently elected to their positions by delegates. Opponents had the chance to make their case for an alternative vision of grassroots control and were rejected by the grassroots. A high degree of incredulity should meet accusations of tyrannical control when the party we have is the party we elected.
Speaking of the grassroots process, protesters should note the opportunity to change the party’s constitution and bylaws by convincing enough delegates to see things their way. If we truly want to restrict the benefits of endorsement and apply them only through Election Day, we can explicitly assert as much in the constitution. Of course, that would be madness, dramatically undercutting the value of endorsement and defeating the purpose of the party.
The worst aspect of this episode, and the reason I am affording it so much of my attention, is that it occurs at great cost to liberty activism in this state. Those engaged in the Great T-Shirt Rebellion expend the political capitol and credibility of the entire movement, defaming the rest of us through association. It makes the movement look petty and undisciplined. Petty because – really, t-shirts? Undisciplined because it indicates that our activists have no idea what they’re talking about and make poor political calculations.
Think about it. What is there to gain here? Let’s imagine the world where this protest is successful, where a petition demanding an apology from Downey and a subsequent change in policy achieves its desired effect. We’ve already established how that would undermine the value of endorsement and thus the strength of the party. How would it advance the cause of liberty? How would it make it easier to elect liberty candidates? Sure, you might ease the path to endorsement for a challenger like David Gerson. But will his candidacy become more viable as a result? If he wins election to Congress, will the now weakened party be well positioned to support its new liberty incumbent? The answers are obvious.
Gerson supporters would be better served applying a fraction of the vigor and motion currently directed toward this futile protest toward the fundamentals of the Gerson campaign. I bet he could use some money. That probably could have gone a long way to funding his own booth at the state fair, like that of so many other candidates. Why not organize toward that, something which would actually affect the viability of his candidacy?
This t-shirt protest harms the liberty movement in our state, conveys a lack of professionalism from the Gerson campaign, and unwittingly seeks to undermine the strength and purpose of the Republican Party. Calling that out won’t stop it from happening. I’ll be called names and disparaged for dissenting from the consensus of individualists. But it is worth whatever price I may pay to call it out anyway, to convey to those observing this fiasco that “liberty” doesn’t mean reckless and irrational. Our conduct affects the reception of our ideas, and the fight to protect individual rights is too important to allow it to be discredited.
Activist Sherald Ward Jr. asks a worthwhile question:
…what you claim [as] implicit apparently is not as clear as you think. There is ambiguity there, and it needs to be addressed once and for all. Rules will be proposed, no doubt, to address this situation. Then we can argue over their merits. Why should the party spend resources promoting candidates for re election who may not even receive the endorsement or nomination to run in the general election? You say it’s the job of the party to elect Republicans and “keep them there”. Sounds like an incumbent’s dream come true. In a roundabout way, you are saying that it is the job of pro-liberty Republicans to grin, bear it, and do their part to help re-elect Republicans indefinitely regardless of their quality.
I don’t begrudge you an opinion on the ambiguity of endorsement. I agree clarification should be made. When it comes time to argue the merits of various proposals, I will stand with whichever one strengthens the endorsement and thus increases grassroots influence over our candidates.
To not support elected officials, on the assumption that they will not seek or receive the endorsement, weakens the endorsement. Candidates have to know that their effort to earn endorsement will be worth it, that the endorsement secures support. If we’re fickle about it, if we say “yeah, sure, we’ll support you today but maybe not tomorrow,” that lack of security severely undermines the value of the endorsement. It’s like an insurance policy that says “yeah, we might pay your claim or we might not, depends on how we feel.” No one’s going to buy such a policy, and no candidate is going to seek such an endorsement.
Your final characterization of my position ignores several of the points made in the piece. You’re proceeding from a false dichotomy, as if the party’s choice is between supporting its incumbents or having a mechanism to challenge them. We can do both. Indeed, it is essential that our mechanism for challenging incumbents present a significant barrier to entry so that only viable challengers succeed. Otherwise, instead of helping re-elect Republicans, we help elect Democrats.
The exchange with Sherald continues:
The nature of endorsement is that it is for the upcoming general election. When an endorsing convention is held, none of the paperwork mentions anything about party resources being promised to a candidate *once the election in question has ended*. If the choice the delegates are to make is to carry any weight beyond that time, then the delegates should be notified in writing before making the decision.
John Kline gets the rare distinction of being able to smile and say, “I am Minnesota’s CD-2 Congressman, the endorsed Republican candidate who won in 2012″.
Giving him an opportunity for exposure that is not also given to David Gerson is an exclusionary policy, is indicative of a closed process, and it’s hard to imagine many outsiders without a dog in the fight thinking it’s fair.
Weakening the endorsement for the 2012 general election in 2013 is not possible, but I understand what you’re getting at. To paraphrase, you are saying that one perk of becoming an endorsed Republican candidate should be that you get to be supported by party resources beyond the election for which you were endorsed.
I can see a run of the mill Republican advocating this, but for folks who are pro-liberty and sincerely want to hold politicians’ feet to fires, it seems highly counter productive.
The idea that giving establishment insiders like Kline something to actually worry about come re-election time amounts to an invitation for a Democrat to take the seat is pretty much saying let’s turn the heat off Kline’s feet so he can act like a Democrat while saving the GOP the embarrassment of losing an election.
First of all, let me pause to thank you for this wonderful interaction, because you’re really getting at the heart of the matter.
I’m glad you’re beginning to follow my point about adding value to the endorsement.
I disagree with the notion that delegates must be notified in writing about something that’s obvious. Again, this notion that the endorsement only lasts until Election Day is based upon nothing. In practice, the party units support their elected officials throughout their terms. They always have, and – if they wish to remain relevant – they always will. Delegate confusion is not necessarily indicative of party deception. Certain things may be taken for granted, especially when supported by readily accessible observations. If you come looking to buy a car from me, I don’t have to disclose that it’s black. You can see that. Likewise, we can see that the party supports and promotes its elected officials. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.
Past value indicates present value and suggests future value. If we weaken the value of past endorsements by withholding the support candidates sought and reasonably expect, then we communicate to current candidates that the endorsement is not worth their time to seek. Why would we do that in an era where two of four gubernatorial candidates feel comfortable waffling on endorsement? We should be looking to add value to the endorsement, not take it away.
Which leads to the final point. You perceive my position as not holding incumbents’ feet to the fire or not giving them something to worry about. But that’s not true at all. My position affirms the ONLY means by which we can hold incumbents’ feet to the fire. Again, if our endorsement is not worth anyone’s time, then they won’t seek it. If they don’t seek it, we can’t very well hold their feet to the fire, can we? That’s why I find this whole episode so self-defeating. Those protesting are unwittingly arguing against the mechanism we have to leverage against incumbents. I understand why that may seem counter-intuitive. At face value, supporting an incumbent supports everything they have done. However, in truth, it gives them something to lose, and that’s the only thing that matters in politics.
There is no shortcut to challenging an incumbent. We can weaken the party all we want, thinking it will make things easier for someone like Gerson to succeed. But at the end of the day, he has to have a viable candidacy. He has to be capable of defeating Kline for endorsement and in the primary, or he has no business as our candidate in the general.