Transcript

417:

This Party Sucks
Transcript

Originally aired 10.29.2010

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

During Bill Jerke's years as a state legislator, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers rated him as one of the biggest enemies of taxes in the state.

Bill Jerke

I think three years out of eight, I was either the out-right winner or tied for most conservative legislator.

Ira Glass

He helped organize the Tea Party chapter in Greeley. And he was proud to let me know:

Bill Jerke

I'm a big supporter of Juan Williams. Go on.

Ira Glass

The politics this year are so strange that this anti-tax republican has found himself spending the fall stumping the state, doing something he's never done.

Ira Glass

Did you ever picture that you'd be somebody going out, talking to republican groups, arguing against tax cuts?

Bill Jerke

It is hard to picture, frankly. That that's a position I would find myself in.

Ira Glass

Jerke is trying to defeat three ballot initiatives that come before Colorado voters next week. Initiatives 60, 61, and 101. Together would strangle most of the ways the government brings in money. They'd cut Colorado's personal income taxes by a fourth, limit the ability of state and local governments to issue bonds, and force the state government to take over $2 billion in education funding that's now covered by local governments, but without the means to pay for that new cost.

Bill Jerke

And so, you start to add it up and you figure out pretty quickly that the state will be short $3 to $4 billion out of a $7 billion general fund. And it's hard to understand how we're going to have a prison system, social services system, and higher education would be all but gone. It would have to virtually be all privatized at that point.

Ira Glass

He believes the initiatives would throw Colorado into such an ongoing fiscal crisis that business would leave the state.

Ira Glass

What do you think of the people who are trying to get these three initiatives passed?

Bill Jerke

I think that they are desperate patriots. I think that they sincerely believe that government has gotten too big, and I can't disagree with them there. I just think that there are more measured ways of doing it. And they say back to me, "Yeah, but we've heard that for 20 years from you and we're tired of waiting."

Ira Glass

Do you think that the politics this year are just very strange where republicans who, in the past, saw eye-to-eye and worked together now are opponents on issues just like this?

Bill Jerke

I have good friends that are on the other side. They're a little bit surprised to see me on this side, I think. But when I point out the fatal flaws within these three questions, they don't have much to say to go ahead and defend themselves either on it. They kind of get back to just muttering again that something's got to be done to go ahead and slow down government.

Ira Glass

This year we have Republicans impatient with the Republican party, and Democrats frustrated with the Democratic party.

Greg Shropshire

There's a lot of African-Americans that are very disheartened with the Democratic party. And they see the abandonment of Barack as the abandonment of Black people.

Ira Glass

That's Greg Shropshire of Rome, Georgia. A past president of the local chapter of a service organization called The 100 Black Man of America. He feels that the Democratic party as a whole has not stood by Barack Obama.

Greg Shropshire

The fact that we're still discussing, 20 something months into the presidency, whether Barack is a Muslim or not, is just asinine. And the fact that it's allowed. The fact that Democrats even allow people out there to even bring stuff like that up. And it's not we are going to sling mud, but the fact that you aren't even speaking up for truth.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, on the eve of this mid-term election, people looking at their own political parties and declaring, "This party sucks." Our show today in two acts. Act one, the conservatives. Act two, the liberals. Stay with us.

Act One. Patriot Games.

Ira Glass

Act one, "Patriot Games." With Tea Parties springing up around the country, so many new people are involved in politics for the first time this election, and they are getting into situations that sometimes they don't know how to handle. Ben Calhoun has this story of one congressional race and two friends.

Ben Calhoun

The day Congressman Bart Stupak's seat came up for grabs was March 21, 2010, a little after 4:00. Stupak is a Democrat from Michigan. He'd been leading a group of pro-life Democrats, who were holding out their votes on the health care bill, until there was something in it that prevented federal money from going to abortions. They held out and held out, and then, at 4:06, Stupak announced that President Obama had agreed to issued an executive order, giving in to their demands. And because of that, Stupak's group would provide the rest of the 216 votes needed to pass the health care bill through the House.

Bart Stupak

I am please to announce that we have an agreement and it is with the help of the President and the Speaker, we were able to come with an agreement to protect the sanctity of life in the health care reform.

Journalist

This puts you guys over the top, are we now past 216?

Bart Stupak

We're well past 216, yes.

Dan Benishek

People started calling me on the phone, even as Mr. Stupak was at the podium.

Ben Calhoun

That's Dan Benishek, a surgeon, who, just a couple months before all this, had decided to run against Stupak. The day of the health care announcement, the day that Bart Stupak officially became the Congressmen who gave the nation Obamacare, Benishek was the only Republican challenger on the books. And there was a good reason for that. Because, after 18 years, Stupak was pretty much considered unbeatable. Essentially, you ran against him if you didn't mind losing, or if you were a total political novice, like Dan Benishek.

Dan Benishek

You know, he's still there talking, answering questions and blah, blah, blah, and the phone started to ring. And it didn't stop for, I don't know, days. It rang all day and all night.

Ben Calhoun

And what we're people saying to you?

Dan Benishek

They were saying, like, "How do we send you money?" [LAUGHTER] Because we didn't even have a website out. You know what I mean? I ended up raising a couple hundred thousand dollars in a matter of weeks.

Ben Calhoun

Did that catch you off guard?

Dan Benishek

Yeah. I'll say. Unbelievably.

Ben Calhoun

Pretty much overnight, Dan Benishek went from being a political nobody to being a political contender. And Bart Stupak went from being the guy who was unbeatable to being the guy who was under 24 hour police protection. Then, 19 days after he announced the health care deal, Stupak announced that he wouldn't be running again. At that moment, Michigan's first district, a conservative place we're both Democrats and Republicans are often pro-life and pro-gun, suddenly became one of the hottest commodities you can get in congressional politics. An open seat in a swing district.

On the Democratic side, a State Assemblyman named Gary McDowell jumped in to replace Stupak, and ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, Dan Benishek's early good luck had given him a head start, but other people climbed in, and things got nasty and contentious. And on election night, it was close. Dan Benishek stayed up late, with his family, watching the votes come in.

Dan Benishek

It was definitely an amazing night. And I ended up winning the primary by 15 votes.

Ben Calhoun

That's a squeaker.

Dan Benishek

You think? [LAUGHTER] We call it a "Dan slide." I know.

Ben Calhoun

The math for this race seems pretty easy. Swing district in a Republican year. You'd figure after the primary Dan Benishek would have it made. But it hasn't worked out that way, for pretty much one reason: Tea Party groups. Tea Party groups have been popping up all over northern Michigan for more than a year. And, just like in other parts of the country, they've been making Republican politics more complicated. Talking to Tea Party activists, you'll find out that most of them went to their first rally in spring of 2009. Though, they are so sensitive about people saying this is really about Obama and the fact that he's black, that almost always, without fail, they'll tell you that they were upset well before Obama even took office.

Rich Carlson

We started talking about form of Tea Party even during George Bush's tenure, with the first TARP bail out.

Ben Calhoun

Rich Carlson lives in Petoskey, Michigan. Which, if you imagine Michigan as the back of your left hand, Petoskey would be the tip of your ring finger. Rich is a tower of a human being. A bulky six foot four, though, because he's so good natured, he manages to be huge without ever seeming threatening. Rich, who's pushing 50, was born and raised in Petoskey and for years he made his living there selling construction supplies. Though, in 2009, with the recession, business had gotten really bad. It was around that time that Rich started talking to his friend, a guy named Tom, about starting a Tea Party.

Rich Carlson

Tom and I have been friends since kindergarten. And so, how long of a friendship is that? Certainly is a long time. Many, many, many, many fishing stories and deer hunting stories and Boy Scout camp fire stories and everything else together.

Tom Swenor

So the first guy I called was Rich.

Ben Calhoun

This is Tom Swenor.

Tom Swenor

So sometime in March, I said, "We've got to do something." Even if it's just three guys, you know, go do something, protest, something. Something. Because I was tired of yelling at my TV. You've probably heard that a lot.

Ben Calhoun

Like Rich, before the Tea Party, Tom had never really been involved in politics. Unlike Rich, Tom's on the short side, with a lean, stocky build and the mannerisms and personality of a vice grip. From the moment you meet him, he seems honest and practical. Tom's a land surveyor, and when construction slowed down during the recession, his business, just like Rich's, was drying up. So Tom and Rich got together with some people from Petoskey, and started planning a Tea Party rally. At some point, someone said, "Look, we need a headliner." They consider Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, but both charge too much money. Eventually someone thought, "What about Joe the Plumber?" And then one day, Tom says, Rich was reading about a Tea Party rally in the state capital, on tax day, and Joe the Plumber would be there.

Tom Swenor

We felt as a group, that's the guy. Nobody has any way of knowing how to get a hold of them, but Rick come up with the idea we could possibly meet him in Lansing. Rich Carlson, you know Rich, he's a lot bigger follow than I, so he couldn't get through the crowd like I could. I'm a little guy, went through there like a-- I mean, ch-ch. And I went up the stairs and I look back on that crowd, and I snap some really cool pictures. And it really gave me a sense of power that this is a movement. Something is going on here. It was exciting to be there, but then it was also exciting because I went up into where Joe the Plumber was at. I asked a security guard. He says, "Well, he's over here." So I went, and I waited for him to get done speaking, I forget if he was talking to television people or whatever, and as soon as he come towards me, I had to say it as quick as possible, because he's just going to shuffle through the crowd. I said, "We're having a Tea Party on May 1, in Petoskey, and we want you to come to our event. And he goes, "Oh, I like Petoskey."

Ben Calhoun

Joe the Plumber spoke on May 1, on a sunny Friday afternoon in Petoskey. For having just started up, the Petoskey Tea Party had hundreds of people at the rally, which is kind of remarkable considering that the city only has 6,000 people in it. Like other Tea Party rallies, the event wasn't about any candidates, or elections, the speakers that day focused on what Tea Party people call "core values" or "core principles" which we should talk about for just a second.

The core values are usually a few very basic things. Generally they are small government, free markets, natural rights, meaning life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and this belief that the Constitution should be very narrowly interpreted. Talking to Tea Party people, these come up constantly, because Tea Partiers again and again go back to the idea that these values are more important than anything, more important than party politics. A lot of times Tea Partiers tell each other that they should only support candidates who really, truly represent conservative values. An expression that gets used all the time is, "principle over party."

So late this summer the race for Michigan's first district was chugging along, and one day Rich Carlson gets a phone call.

Rich Carlson

One day I'm the back deck of my condo, beautiful summer day. Cell phone rings. I answer the phone and I end up listening to about 20 minutes of somebody selling me on the fact of their core values and principles and what's wrong with the country, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Ben Calhoun

The guy on the phone was a guy named Glenn Wilson. Wilson is a self-made millionaire who owns a telephone and Internet company. Basically, Wilson was telling Rich he was thinking about getting in the race as an Independent, running on a lot of Tea Party type ideas. He was also saying he'd be willing to throw his own money into the campaign, so he wouldn't be some marginal third party guy. At this point, Rich had been appointed President of the Petoskey Tea Party. Not only that, he'd co-founded an umbrella group for Tea Party groups all across northern Michigan, which was called the Northern Michigan Liberty Alliance. That day, Wilson was trying to persuade Rich to join his campaign. And Rich was up for it.

Rich Carlson

I had a candidate that was viable, that had the financial horse power to do it, could raise money, and had good core ideals. And so I thought, well, game on potentially.

Ira Glass

Which was fine. And then Dan Benishek won the Republican primary. Which meant that Benishek would be the leading contender to beat the Democrat in November. And most of Rich's Tea Party friends were excited to support Benishek. They were psyched to have someone who could take back Stupak's seat for the conservatives. At the same time, they were worried that Glenn Wilson was going to enter the race, split the conservative vote, and spoil everything. But Rich says he was convinced. Wilson was just a better embodiment of Tea Party ideals, so he went with the Tea Party philosophy. Principal over party. Forget who's the most electable. He wasn't worried about losing the seat.

Rich Carlson

There's a tremendous amount of fear of putting a Democrat in this seat. Not looking through the perspective that there's 435 seats in the US Congress and this is just one of 435 races that are happening November 2. Secondly, I believe it's going to be a landslide for the Republicans. I think that, no matter how this race turns out, Independent, Republican, or Democrat, that it's still going to be a Republican run house and more than likely a Republican run Senate.

Ben Calhoun

Essentially, Rich said, if Wilson split the vote and the Democrats won the race, it might even be a good thing. Because Republicans would have to cater more to Tea Partiers the next time around.

Rich Carlson

This is one of the ways to return one of the parties closer to Tea Party ideals.

Ben Calhoun

Putting the ideals first.

Rich Carlson

Definitely principles above party.

Ben Calhoun

Rich signed on as Wilson's campaign manager, but he didn't tell anyone in the Petoskey Tea Party. He knew none of his friends would like it. They'd all talked about Wilson being a spoiler. But Rich also knew his secret could only last for so long. Tom, Rich's best friend, says it all came out in the open during the group's first meeting after the primary.

Tom Swenor

That first meeting after the preliminary election, and I went to the Tea Party. Rich was there and, you know, it was quite a number of people. But Rich Carlson got up and walked out of the room and this other gentleman that's there with his wife, followed him. That's when I went, that's Glenn Wilson and they're going out to coach him how to talk to us.

Karen Lacross

Later I overheard Rich say to him, "Now, don't ever do this. Or don't ever do that."

Ben Calhoun

This is Karen LaCross, Vice President of the Petoskey Tea Party. Who says, that night, at first, she didn't even know why Rich was giving Wilson advice.

Karen Lacross

And then it dawned on me, oh my god, he's grooming him for candidacy.

Tom Swenor

And then he introduced Glenn Wilson. He would speak and Rich would cringe because he's saying something he's not supposed to say. And because Rich is my buddy I knew what he was up to.

Karen Lacross

And I thought, but just two days ago we had this discussion about we hoped he didn't enter the race. And I'm like, hm. And then later on, within days, we knew that he was working for him. And we were all shocked.

Ben Calhoun

For days after that meeting, Tom and Karen and others in the Petoskey Tea Party say they tried to get in touch with Rich. Tom called him at his house, on his cell, at the campaign, he texted him. One day, he even called a radio show and publicly went after Rich and Glenn Wilson. Karen LaCross says everyone felt betrayed. But Tom took it especially hard.

Karen Lacross

Tommy, being the emotional person that is, I think he took it personal. It's hard to detach yourself, especially when you have a friend like that. I think that because they're like brothers and because they took different paths, and they think that each one has got, you know, consequences that they can't support. They took it too personal. Tom has made it very vocal how disappointed he's been. And how, you know, how hurt he's been.

Ben Calhoun

Rick and Tome went from talking five times a day, to not speaking at all. Without an explanation from Rich, Tom now thinks the worst. That Rich didn't take the campaign manager job because he believed in it. At this point, he says Rich was unemployed and he took the job for the money. Essentially, his theory is now that his best friend is a sell out.

Tom Swenor

I guess Rich feels he's doing good and that the money came. I hope to hell it was a lot. I hope it was a King's ransom, dude, I hope it wasn't just some chump change. Because I would hope that my friendship is worth 10 grand. A guy that's known him for forty freaking years.

Karen Lacross

We did pull an emergency meeting together.

Ben Calhoun

Petoskey Tea Party Vice President Karen LaCross says after a week of trying to get a hold of Rich and talk him out of what he was doing, she and the other board members decided enough was enough. So they called a meeting without him.

Karen Lacross

And it was just like, we all called each other and said, "Can you be there? Can you be there?" We all went into a room at one of the people's offices, and we said, OK, here's the deal. Rich has been a great leader. And so we said, all right, we don't want to just blow him out of water here, because he's been an integral part of this. And so we symbolically pulled a chair up to the table that was empty and said, OK, that's Rich's chair. And all we're going to do is, we're going to swap him out temporarily with one of the regular board members and that board member will become president pro temp.

Ben Calhoun

Tom was there that day.

Tom Swenor

I was kind of emotionally torn. Because how much Rick was involved, but we kind of took a stand. I mean, I don't remember who made the motion and seconded it. I think there was only five of us there, six of us there. I think I was the last to vote. It was unanimous.

Ben Calhoun

Even if Tom doesn't remember who it was that seconded the motion to push out Rich, records from the meeting show who it was, and it was Tom himself. For Rich, this meant he'd just been voted out of the Tea Party group he'd help create.

Rich Carlson

I was notified by just standard minutes of a special meeting that was held. That I was going to be-- that an interim president was being appointed until I came off the campaign trail.

Ben Calhoun

And, at that moment, do you remember what you thought, and felt, when you when you read that?

Rich Carlson

My initial thoughts were, the GOP has taken over this Tea Party, too. That was my initial thought. Because it's happening all over the place.

Ben Calhoun

One of the most confusing things about the Tea Party, and this gets talked about so much now, is it's relationship with the GOP. Is the Tea Party just part of the Republican party? Do they want to change the Republican party? Is the Tea Party rebelling against the Republican party? In all of this, it seems like the thing that you can really say about the relationship between the Republican party and the Tea Party is that it's really, really awkward. And it's awkward because there's a split in the Tea Party about how to see Republicans. There's Rich's view, which is that the Republican party has been paying lip service to conservative values. They've gone soft and should be viewed with suspicion. And Tea Partiers should be willing to walk away. Principle over party.

Rich Carlson

If you get lousy service at a restaurant, or a store, and you continue to go there all the time, do you think that store or restaurant is ever going to change their level of service? No. If we just keep on voting the same way, and just going with those two choices, are the parties ever going to change? No, they're not.

Ben Calhoun

The other Tea Party view is much more pragmatic, and it's the one that Tom has taken. It's pretty much the William F. Buckley approach, that if you want to serve conservative ideals, you find the most electable conservative and you gather everyone behind that candidate. And when it comes to the issue that any congressman is likely to vote on in the next two years, the republican, Benishek, is pretty much the same as Wilson, the independent. For Rich and Tom the split has been so severe that Tom can't even understand where Rich is coming from. And without an explanation from Rich, his theories have gotten pretty harsh. At this point, his theory is that Glenn Wilson is being bride with stimulus money to spoil the race, and Rich got duped.

Tom Swenor

Never once did our Tea Party say, we're going to be the spoiler and we're going to help the democrat win. That was never in our discussion. Shame on you guys. How come he couldn't see through Glenn Wilson, like everybody did the first time we met him. You're a spoiler. You're a spoiler and you're a spoiler. Glenn Wilson, you're a spoiler, you've been put here for a reason, and not all good reason.

Ben Calhoun

I told Tom what Rich said, that there's 435 five seats in Congress, and it might be a wake-up call if the Tea Party costs the Republicans a seat or two. Tom said Michigan's first congressional district race, it's not just any seat, it's a symbol. Because it was Stupak that allowed the health care bill to pass. Tom says he has fantasies about Dan Benishek taking a seat and then, some day, casting the votes that appeals the health care bill. "Wouldn't that just be so beautiful?" he said. And all Glenn Wilson can do is ruin that.

According to the latest poll, the race between the Republican, Dan Benishek, and the Democrat, Gary McDowell now a dead heat, each of them holding about 40% of the vote. Rich's candidate, Glenn Wilson, is getting 8% of the vote. Meaning he could actually be a spoiler and throw the race to the democrat. That fact has become super stressful for a lot of Tea Party type voters, who account for many of the people supporting him.

At the beginning of the month, the Tea Party umbrella group that Rich Carlson co-founded, the Northern Michigan Liberty Alliance, got together to talk about all this. About how people were divided, divided over the question about what exactly they should do. They met on a Saturday afternoon, at a Quality Inn next to a freeway ramp.

Man

OK. Thank you for coming. This place still cost us money, anybody would like to donate a couple of bucks in our can, we would appreciate that.

Ben Calhoun

About 40 people from Tea Party groups from all around northern Michigan were there that day. Within the first half an hour, one guy stood up and stated the whole dilemma pretty plainly. He said recently he'd read a book about Libertarianism and in the back of the book, there was a quiz. So he took it.

Man

I was surprised to find out that I am 100% Libertarianist in philosophy. My question is, even though I might like to be a Libertarian, I would also like to have an influence. And it seems like we've got a problem to really make something happen. And so, as such, I don't know anything better I can do at the a moment than to vote Republican. I don't like that, but, what do we do?

Ben Calhoun

Again and again the room felt like a bunch of independent minded idealists, coming up against the hard political reality that the Republican party, the one so many of them resent, is there only real viable way to be relevant. Through all this Rich Carlson sat at the front of the room, so quiet you wouldn't have known he was there. Then, at one point, Karen LaCross, the Vice President of Petoskey Tea Party, Rich's old group, spoke up. Karen said it was possible for the Tea Party to take sides with the Republicans without being co-opted. She singled out Chad Stevens, this really thoughtful Libertarian guy who had co-founded the Northern Michigan Liberty Alliance with Rich.

Karen Lacross

Do not implode on each other. That's my concern. Is we're all sitting here trying to poke each other and say, "You're wrong. No, you're wrong. No, you're wrong." We can't do that any more. And Chad, if you want to vote for a third-party candidate, you know what? That's your zen. You know, that's what you're-- But, the bottom line is, don't sit there and poke each other in the eyes. We're not making any ground.

Chad

I'd say this, and I agree with what you said. The attacks on people, people like Rich Carlson have been tarred and feathered for advancing liberty the way he best sees fit. If we all want to vote for Dan Benishek, the Republican, great. But if 10%, 15% want to advance liberty, and they're sick of the two party system? Fine, that's their call. The GOP has only itself to blame for people looking elsewhere. For years they have thrown liberty under the bus. [APPLAUSE]

Ben Calhoun

After about five hours if this, someone from the Glenn Wilson campaign, that's Rich's guy, they whisper to me that Glenn was outside, and he wanted to talk to me. I walked out and around the corner, to the parking lot, where Glenn's campaign bus was idling. It's this big, silver deal, with a huge photo of Glenn's face, and a big bald eagle on the side.

A couple days before all this, I'd spent a day on the bus, and just to give you a little sense of him, Glenn is in his 40's, but he looks 30. And he drinks Mountain Dew relentlessly. I saw him drink seven or eight cans in an afternoon.

Ben Calhoun

What's up you guys? How you been?

Glenn Wilson

Hey, Ben, long time no see.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, hey, how are you?

Glenn Wilson

So the Tea Party break up?

Ben Calhoun

So what's up?

Glenn Wilson

Are we on the air?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. If-- that's what you wanted.

Glenn Wilson

I know, shut it off for a minute.

Ben Calhoun

OK.

In 10 years of covering politics, I've never had any politician do something quite as bizarre as what Glenn Wilson did next. He told me he wanted to fire Rich. Then he asked me what I thought of it. I told him that I didn't have an opinion, and even if I did, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to share it. And then I told him that if this is why he called me out there, I would need him to say it on tape.

Ben Calhoun

If that's what you wanted to tell me then we're rolling.

Glenn Wilson

I think I need to relieve Rich of his position as campaign manager and install a new campaign manager. We need to find a campaign manager that's able to organize and manage in a much more efficient way than Rich can. Or has.

Ben Calhoun

Well, when are you going to tell him?

Glenn Wilson

As soon as he comes out of this meeting.

Ben Calhoun

After the meeting, Wilson grabbed Rich, and he let him down a hallway, passed the hotel bar, into a small conference room. I waited in the hall. Back on the bus, Glenn had shown me the campaign calendar, and said he was going to fire Rich because he hadn't set up enough events. What I didn't say to him then, was that I had spent time with the other campaigns, and their schedules weren't very different, though maybe Glenn was just too inexperienced to know that. After about 10 minutes, Glenn walked out. As he passed me, he winked and said, "Thanks, have a good one." So I went to talk to Rich.

Rich Carlson

Yes, sir.

Ben Calhoun

Hey.

Rich Carlson

Yes.

Ben Calhoun

How's it going?

Rich Carlson

Wonderful. Am I on tape. OK, good.

Ben Calhoun

Glenn had taken away Rich's briefcase, computer, and his phone, which all belonged to the campaign, and Rich stood there, packing his things into a plastic shopping bag.

Rich Carlson

Total surprise to me, so. It has nothing to do with politics, just organization. So that's the way it goes.

Ben Calhoun

So, can you tell me about the conversation that you just had?

Rich Carlson

No.

Ben Calhoun

Why not?

Rich Carlson

Maybe in a day or two I can, sure. It just happened moments ago so, I'm tired. I've had a long day, and I'm looking forward to going home.

Ben Calhoun

I have to say, I feel really bad for you.

Rich Carlson

No, don't feel bad for me at all. No.

Ben Calhoun

Rich had lost the Tea Party group he'd started the year before. He lost his best friend. And now, he just lost the job he'd given it all up for.

Ben Calhoun

I mean, you seem like you've given up a lot to be doing what you're doing right now.

Rich Carlson

More than what most people realize. But I still believe in the cause.

Ben Calhoun

What do you mean?

Rich Carlson

Well, I believe that it's very important to push forth an independent candidate. Am I crushed or disappointed? Yeah, I'm disappointed I couldn't see it to the end, but I'll still be involved. You know. I'm still supportive of him. I'm supportive of the campaign. I think it's great to give people a viable option besides the normal two party system. For once they've got somebody that's running that can actually win this thing.

Ben Calhoun

A couple days after he got fired, I met with Rich one more time before leaving Michigan, just to talk about how he was feeling and what was happening now. Then, while we were sitting there, Rich got a phone call.

Rich Carlson

Local Tea Party-- [PHONE RINGS] Sorry.

Ben Calhoun

The call was from a guy named Tony Cutler, a campaign staffer for the Republican candidate, Dan Benishek.

Rich Carlson

Tony, how you doing?

Tony Cutler

Richard, what are you doing?

Rich Carlson

You don't want to know.

Tony Cutler

I heard you were released from the Glenn Wilson campaign.

Rich Carlson

Oh douche bag, how have you been?

Tony Cutler

Well, good, how are you?

Rich Carlson

I'm doing great. Released. We had a difference of opinions, how about it I leave it at that?

Tony Cutler

So let's get you out on the side of bashing him by saying you left him and are against his campaign, and we'll make you look good for leaving and we'll--

Ben Calhoun

Tony gave me permission to broadcast this conversation, though he asked that I say that he was not calling Rich on behalf of the Benishek campaign. Which seemed like a strange request, because in the call, it was pretty clear that he was. He was telling Rich that Rich should put out a press release, and he should like. He should say that he hadn't been fired. Instead, he'd quit out of principal because Wilson was going to be a spoiler.

Rich Carlson

Yeah. That's something that you and I probably need to talk about.

Tony Cutler

Huh?

Rich Carlson

That's probably something you and I need to talk about.

Tony Cutler

Well, I'm pleased to talk about right this second, because I've got people writing two stories. We've got Benishek people writing the story saying you were fired, to make it look like Glenn Wilson doesn't know what he's doing. Or we can make it look like you realized that this guy is no good, he has no vision, he's only in it for himself and you were supporting him on principal, and now that he's abandoned his principals, let's get the GOP elected and the party back on track. I want to try to save your image as much as we can here.

Rich Carlson

Right.

Tony Cutler

The article will be written by the news. It will read that, you know, Wilson fired his top aide and you'll get to control the story by saying, you know, the guy didn't know what he was doing--

Rich Carlson

Yes.

Tony Cutler

Or you come out, I can get you in contact with the press people, and you can come out as the guy saying, you know, this is not what it's about--

Ben Calhoun

Slowly, over the course of the next 15 minutes, Rich caved. He said he didn't want to be part of anything that criticized Glenn Wilson, but he would go along with Tony's plan, to put out something saying Wilson was a spoiler for conservatives, and he should drop out.

Rich Carlson

You can craft that, and then are you going to say that the Benishek campaign talked to me?

Tony Cutler

Yeah.

Rich Carlson

OK.

Tony Cutler

All right, I'll keep in touch with you today.

Rich Carlson

Please do, thank you. See you, bye.

Ben Calhoun

After he hung up, I asked Rich about what he'd said to me before, all the things about principal over party. We went back and forth again and again, because he was saying these totally contradictory things. One minute he'd say the thing he'd been telling me all along. Tea Party people need to be independent, even if that means spoiling races for Republicans. Then, the next minute, he'd say the thing he'd agree to with Tony, that Wilson would be a spoiler and he should get out.

Rich Carlson

First and foremost, I don't want to see the Democrats take this seat.

Ben Calhoun

But, essentially what you had said to me before was, if an independent candidate with better core values stopped the GOP from winning this race that, by the numbers, by the math, they should win, they would have incentive to listen to folks in the Liberty movement.

Rich Carlson

Unfortunately, that-- I'm not being given that opportunity anymore by the Wilson campaign.

Ben Calhoun

Wait. I don't understand what you're saying.

Rich Carlson

Well, we've reached a decision that I'm no longer with the campaign. So that is not an options for me anymore on a personal level.

Ben Calhoun

But that doesn't affect how you feel about it, right?

Rich Carlson

Maybe you and I should discuss this a little bit without the microphone being on. I guess I'm trying to understand which direction you're taking here.

Ben Calhoun

I'm just trying to rectify what you said to me. You were saying that you're not saying he should pull out, but essentially what you just told Tony was that he should pull out.

Rich Carlson

But I still believe that he probably should stay in the race just to rub it in the Republicans nose.

Ben Calhoun

Just personally?

Rich Carlson

Yeah, personally. But if I have a future in politics, don't you think it's wise that I say, hey, I got out of it, and he continued on.

Ben Calhoun

You know what's funny? I feel like that's the most cynical thing I've heard you say.

Rich Carlson

Is that cynical? Is that cynical?

Ben Calhoun

A little bit, don't you think?

Rich Carlson

I think that's reality.

Ben Calhoun

Not 10 hours later, I got an email from the Dan Benishek campaign. It was a forwarded press release with Rich's name on it. It read, quote, "Congressional candidate Glenn Wilson is running without the support of his top aide today. Campaign Manager Rich Carlson made the decision to step down from the top post, as a result of a difference in opinions with the candidate."

A couple weeks after all this happened, Rich told me he still feels like he did the right thing. He said if anything's changed, it's that he's not sure how much he wants to be involved in politics. I asked both Rich and Tom the other day if they'd started talking again, and they both said no. When I asked each of them if they were planning to call, they also gave me the same answer. Each said they weren't going to, because they weren't the person who did something wrong.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun in one of the producers of our show. Coming up, to paraphrase Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, why can't a Democrat be more like a Republican? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Mr. Hitt Goes To Washington.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "This Party Sucks." Stories for this mid-term election of political people who have problems with their own political parties. We've arrived at Act 2 of our show. Act 2, "Mister Hitt Goes to Washington."

It goes without saying at this point that lots of people around the country aren't happy with the legislation that the President has pushed. The substance of what the President has done. When you talk to so many Democrats, whatever qualms they may have with the actual programs the President has, those are overshadowed by their feelings about the President's own inability to sell his programs.

A small businessman from Pennsylvania named Walt Rowen, who likes the President's programs, complained about this directly to the President's face at one of his recent town meetings.

Walt Rowen

Your stimulus package actually funded a very ailing financial system which was essential for small business people. You turned around and invested in the auto industry, and I believe saved millions of jobs and yet, for some reason, the public just doesn't get it. Because you're losing the war of sound bites. You're losing the media cycles.

Ira Glass

On issue after issue, Republicans have catchy, understandable sound bites and the Democrats seem to have nothing. Stimulus is another one where Democrats are fighting a well articulated, oft repeated, Republican narrative about deficits and failure to deliver results with really pretty much nothing on health care. The lack of any persuasive message has left Democrats running from the issue. It's barely mentioned in TV ads, at congressional races around the country. On finance reform, there's been no understandable explanation for what the hell led us into the recession, and what is needed to fix it.

Back in 1930's, FDR used high-profile hearing, Pecora hearings, to create a national consensus about what had gone wrong in the economy and a mandate for what to do next. Nothing has played that role for the Democrats today.

Jack Hitt, who voted for Obama back in 2008, normally prefers to watch politics on the sidelines. But after witnessing this two-year display of lame-assery, he decided he had to go to Washington to try to understand.

Jack Hitt

What happened? These new Democrats who came to power in 2008 were supposed to be such savvy communicators. Two years ago, all over the country, Democrats adored Obama's verbal jujitsu, his team's rapid response to attacks and daily messages. When Sarah Palin tried the "palling around with terrorists" shtick, linking Obama to 60's radical Bill Ayers, the rapid response team laughed it off, saying, "Sure, Obama denounced these terrible bombings that happened. When he was eight years old." They knew how to do it.

The campaign slogan, "Yes we can," seemed as much about saying the Democrats could create a message machine just as effective as Fox News, the right wing thing tanks, and the weekend echo chamber of deployed pundits. Where did that aggressiveness go? When Republicans called the President a Muslim, Barack Obama himself, said, "I will always put my money--"

Barack Obama

On the American people. And I'm not going to be worrying too much about whatever rumors are floating around.

Jack Hitt

Really? I mean, by now even my mother knows that if you don't respond to an attack, then the attack becomes the new reality. If your enemies insist that you are a Bolshevik and no one responds with a coherent counter message, then people who think you are a Bolshevik will get elected to Congress in disturbing numbers. Which is about to happen.

Is no one who could call them up calling them up and telling them the obvious? Or maybe there's some theory behind the inaction that we're just not seeing. Maybe this is one of Obama's long game tactics, one of his legendary triple bank shots. For nearly two years I've wondered, what's going on over there? What are the Democratic strategists thinking? To find out, I turn to one of the top insiders. Someone who's close to Rahm Emanuel, and talks to David Axelrod. Who meets with the top Democrats in the House and Senate. Who writes an occasional candidate speech and also works the media side as a commentator on CNN. The former Clinton aide, Paul Begala.

The first thing I learned when we sat down in a conference room in DC was not reassuring. He's easily as frustrated with the Democrats as I am. Take the reason statement from the President in The New York Times that quote, "bipartisan cooperation will flower right after the election."

Paul Begala

When monkey's fly out my ass.

Jack Hitt

Anyone who's watched the last 15 years knows how smartly Republicans craft their messages. Grover Norquist, or some other leading conservative strategist, faxes or emails out the topic of the day, and a list of phrases to use in discussing it. Hence the term "Talking points memo." Conservatives everywhere fan out and repeat the talking points in every form of media. Everybody's talking about it, so their position seems inevitable. If the Democrats are attempting anything like this, it's some very subtle jujitsu. I put it to Begala, is what looks to me like a lack of strategy, actually a strategy?

Jack Hitt

For example, during the health care debate, right, the other side starts shouting death panels. And the Obama administration, and the Democratic party at large, has no answer to this, right? They don't have a theme of the day that they're promoting for health care reform.

Paul Begala

You know, the answer is, you want to see a death panel? I will take you to a death penalty. And go to a big private insurance company, stand out in front of their building, and tell the story of the girl, I can't remember her name now, I think it's Natalie, there was a little girl who was denied her care and she died. That's a real death panel. And it happens every day in the private insurance system. That's the really answer.

Jack Hitt

That is the real answer so why didn't Democrats hear that two years ago?

Paul Begala

Why didn't they say it?

Jack Hitt

Why didn't they say it?

Paul Begala

I called everybody I know. I did. And what did

Jack Hitt

They say?

Paul Begala

You know, some said, "Sure, fine," and then they went of and did something else. Others-- there's a real fear in the Democratic party of appearing anti-business. And Democrats are not anti-business, but they're really worried about it. There's a terrible concern in appearing anti-business. They worry endlessly.

Jack Hitt

Or take the Obama is a Muslim line. Rush Limbaugh now regularly refers to the President "Imam Obama." If this were say, Joy Behar, referring to the Republicans as Klan members, actually that happened, and the Republican response was one you've seen dozens of times on all sorts of issues. The pundit fanned out on to the talk shows, turned indignantly to whichever unlucky Democrat happened to be booked on the panel, and demanded, "Tom, I would love to discuss the economy. But before that, I insist that you join me in denouncing Joy Behar for comparing Republicans to the Klan." That's how it's done. Push back against ridiculous language. Put the other side on the defensive. Make them cringe.

A standard part of the Republican play but for the last 20 years. Why don't Democrats just do that? Well, Begala actually knows the answer. He says Barack Obama doesn't want to offend anybody.

Paul Begala

There's a billion Muslims in this world, and there's nothing wrong with them. And there's a whole lot of Muslims in American, and whole lot in his military who are risking their lives for us. So he can't accept any kind of rubric that suggests that somehow it's a pejorative to call you a Muslim. I'm just saying for the President him. Now--

Jack Hitt

He's got a party surrounding him.

Paul Begala

Exactly.

Jack Hitt

What's going on?

Paul Begala

Exactly. That's where he needs his side, and his party, to put it out.

Jack Hitt

In Kentucky, a Conway has asserted that Rand Paul, a million years ago, did something that was vaguely non-Christian, and all the Republicans have their petticoats up. OK.

Let me just explain what I'm talking about here. Jack Conway's the Democrat running for Senate in Kentucky, and he ran a TV ad about his opponent, Republican Rand Paul, about how when he was a student at a Christian college, Rand Paul was a member of a secret society that mocked Christianity. Conway is being attacked from all sides for questioning his opponent's faith on TV.

Jack Hitt

And Conway may lose the election because he's brought-- because of this issue.

Paul Begala

When they do show some cojones, there's always someone saying, "Oh, don't do that, don't do that." And I think that-- [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Jack Hitt

I've got to jump in on this.

Paul Begala

OK.

Jack Hitt

You're right, Conway had some cojones. But who are the people who jumped on him for running that ad? Democrats.

Paul Begala

I defended it. I did. Strongly.

Jack Hitt

No, it just-- it seems like there's always an excuse for why Democrats have to retreat, and cringe. You know, there's always, like, well, we don't want to offend the Muslims, so we're not going to engage on the Obama is a Muslim President. We don't want to engage on death panels or health care too much, because it might make us look anti-insurance company, anti-business, so there's always an excuse for why they can't push back.

Paul Begala

That's right.

Jack Hitt

Then, in early September, Obama and his team seemed to wake up. Obama said that the Republicans were holding, quote, "Middle-class tax cuts hostage to millionaire and billionaire cuts." The next day Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner repeated that line almost word for word. A real talking point. I looked forward to one of those Jon Stewart bits where he quotes a half dozen officials robotically reciting the same sound bite before he rests his face in hip open palms. Only this time it would be Democrats, not Republicans.

Barack Obama

They want to hold these middle-class tax cuts hostage until they get an additional tax cut for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Tim Geithner

Hold middle-class tax cuts hostage to make permanent tax cuts that go to just the top 2% of earners in the country.

Barack Obama

$700 billion to give a tax cut worth an average of $100,000 to millionaires and billionaires.

Tim Geithner

To have us go out and borrow $700 billion from our children.

Barack Obama

And it's a tax cut economists say would do little to add momentum to our economy.

Tim Geithner

Little impact on job creation and years of stagnation in middle-class wages.

Jack Hitt

I thought, OK, this election is on. The Democrats would force the issue to the floor, and make Republicans vote against middle-class tax cut weeks before an election. We do have a two party system, and the system is working. Predictably the Republicans pushed back with classic rapid response. Senator John Kyl distilled this into two words: class warfare. The democrats response? They panicked, and went into their usual crouch. A day later it was decided, the issue would be shelved until after the election. They would not run on tax cuts, the most effective political issue in America.

Jack Hitt

They shelved it, explain that to me.

Paul Begala

I can't. I can't defend it, put it that way. Explain it, because they let the Senators who are up in this election cycle make the decision on whether they voted on it. And the ones who were up in the cycle said, "You know, I'd just as soon just go home and run my campaign, rather than have the tax issue up." I think it was a colossal mistake. I cannot imagine the Republicans leaving an issue on the table that they win by two to one, eight weeks before an election. I cannot imagine that. It is a divisive issue, by the way, but it divides two to one for the Democrats. It really infuriated me, but, see, that's what I mean. There are people in my party and, believe me, I was involved in meetings with strategists, not politicians, where we were screaming and I was hurling foul language about this. And the view was, Democrats can never went in a race on taxes. We can never win if the issue is taxes. I just don't agree.

I went to them. I gave them a chart out of The Wall Street Journal that tracked the tax issue during the '08 election. On labor day, John McCain and Barack Obama were tied on the question of who do you trust on the issue of taxes. Barack Obama went out every single day after that and said, "If you make less than $250,000, I'm going to cut your taxes. If you make more, I'm not." Every day. By election day, he was ahead, I think, by 16 points. Maybe 14. So what does that tell you? It tells you, if you wage the fight, you can win the fight. But you can't win it if you don't fight.

Jack Hitt

I'm going to back to this question. So why, do you have any inside information as to why the Obama administration, and the Democratic party at large, abandoned a sure thing for this campaign, tactically? Was there a secret theory that they had that this would work in their favor?

Paul Begala

They believed that any discussion of taxes would be to their detriment.

Jack Hitt

There's always an excuse. I had come to Washington to understand the new media strategy of the revived Democratic party. Instead, I discovered something the dated back almost a century. To when Will Rogers first cracked that joke. "I'm not a member of an organized party, I'm a Democrat." I couldn't believe it. Again, I turned to Begala.

Jack Hitt

It's not even clear that the Democrats have a messaging machine. Is there a phone call? Does a fax go out? Is an email-- is anybody in touch with anybody every day? Is there?

Paul Begala

My guest is it's those three different operations, the House, the Senate, and the White House. They try to intersect as much as they can. But, no, I don't think the Democrats have this sort of coordination. It's looser. I've been working toward that goal all my career. But I don't think we're there. But it is true, they're never going to be as organized. Now, there is--

Jack Hitt

But why is that?

Paul Begala

It's the nature of the culture. It just is. I'm serious. I mean, I've done center-left parties all around the world. And in the main, people who tend to be very corporate, very hierarchical, very obedient, tend to be conservative. We don't just sit waiting for orders on the left.

Jack Hitt

So there is no daily phone call or email that goes out from the White House, saying here's what we want to push today. Here's what we want to try to-- Here's what you should be talking about, or alerting the nation to.

Paul Begala

Right. No, there is definitely is an email that goes out every day to talkers. And there are talker's calls and so forth. I have to say, I don't get on them. And I'm a pretty loyal Democrat. And I don't read their talking points on the air. I don't.

Jack Hitt

Maybe that explains what's happening.

Paul Begala

That's what I mean, it's a cultural thing. Here am I, a total Democrat, and I'm an Obama Democrat, and I get stuff from the White House and I delete it. I was like, I'll never read that crap on the air. I think for myself.

Jack Hitt

Paul, you were just saying how you were trying to build this infrastructure to mimic the Grover Norquist machine. I mean, if you're not paying attention to your own machine, or the one that you're trying to build, why would any Democrat?

Paul Begala

Right. That's a good point. But, also, some of it is, I think, as I said, we like to think for ourselves. Second, you know, you're going to have to bleep this, but my [BLEEP] is better than their [BLEEP], so I don't need their [BLEEP].

Jack Hitt

Did you get that? Even Begala, who's dream has been to create such a machine, admits that he'd rather hit the delete button and fling is own poo. Which explains why the many voices of the Democrats today sound like argle bargle white noise, muttered into a thousand microphones, against which the clarity of the conservative position rings as the only truth anyone can here. Though Begala told me he actually thinks the democrats have gotten better in the last few weeks, and that there will be some surprises among the massive losses. Constructive surprises.

Paul Begala

You will find, the Democrats who survived are the ones who had some spine. They're not the ones who ran away saying, "Oh, I didn't vote for health care and I didn't--" you know? No. They're going to be the ones who stood up-- I'm leaving now, tonight, literally, to go to Ohio to campaign for this guy John Boccieri. Iraq war veteran, he represents a district that had been Republican for 60 years before he was elected. He cast one of the deciding votes for the health care bill. And he was asked about it, in his heavily Republican district. And he said, "You know, I used to think I was brave and I used to think I was tough and I've flown into enemy fire, been on four combat missions, but I'm just not tough enough to look this lady in the eye who's got breast cancer and tell her I'm going to deny her health care. I'm not tough enough to do that. If you want somebody that tough, you've got to vote for a Republican." I love this guy. I think John Boccieri is going to win, I hope he does, I'm going out to help him. But if he does, people will say, "Well, maybe I ought to be more like that, then like some of these, you know, wimpier Democrats."

Jack Hitt

Everyone is comparing this year's coming tsunami to the wave election of 1994. That's when the Republicans took control of the House from the Democrats for the first time since 1947. But that was only half the story. The Republicans in those days were led by a lethargic bore of a man named Bob Michael. He was rotund in a 19th century cartoon sort of way and spoke in tones that would silence a colicky baby. The young punk and back-bencher Newt Gingrich had declared war that year, not only on Democrats, but on Bob Michael. Michael's certainty that Democrats would always control the House, and that his job was to speak carefully and collect their crumbs, was the real corruption Gingrich identified as the rot in the old Republican party. One that would welcome conservative ideas.

The current Tea Party rebellion is much the same. They've primaried and overthrown some of the most establishment old bull conservatism in Congress. And next year they'll probably destroy Republican moderates, like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Olympia Snow of Maine. Meanwhile, Democrats live one election at a time, one issue at a time, unaware that they've become electoral wallpaper, in front of which daring conservative delight in performing, and that the Democrats only hope is to understand that their real enemy is not the Republican party, but their own imaginations.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt lives in New Haven.

[MUSIC - "WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?" BY G.W. MCLEANNAN]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun and our Senior Producer Julie Snyder with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Johnathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Seth Lind is our production manager, Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Shawn Wen.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS] Our website: thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia. He's kind of sore with me because we had plans this weekend. I took a little freelance work instead to make a little money.

Man

I hope to hell it was a lot. I hope it was a king's ransom, dude. I hope it wasn't just some chump change. 'Cause I would hope that my friendship was worth 10 grand.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.