Could Dr. Kevin Weiland Have Beaten Kristi Noem?
Friday, 05 November 2010 21:19Written by Sam Hurst
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.
It is the first principle in politics that you can't get elected by criticizing the voters. Luckily, journalists write under no such constraints.
South Dakota voters, in their infinite wisdom, have just elected the state's biggest welfare queen to Congress. They have elected a woman who has shown no desire to study the problems of capital formation, job creation, tax policy, foreign trade, or the federal budget. She has nothing to say about foreign policy, the distorted structure of defense spending, or military strategy. She breaks out in hives in the presence of science. She cannot specifically detail how it is that she intends to balance the budget or shrink the size of the federal government.
She is a walking, talking, cliché machine of godliness and small town virtue: a champion of kitchen table economics in a complex global economy dominated by international finance and multinational corporations (no small number of whom finance and trade American farm products). In short, she goes to Washington as a conservative populist, but she is perfectly poised to become a K Street corporate patsy.
Get ready for a wild ride down the rabbit hole.
It is conventional wisdom that Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin lost to Kristi Noem as part of an anti-incumbent, anti-Obama tsunami. South Dakota is a red state anyway, the logic goes, so Noem simply had to link Herseth-Sandlin to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, offer a few quaint, common sense clichés about how the world's most complex economy operates like her children's piggy bank, hide from the press, and hang on for the ride.
Stephanie tried to channel her inner Blue Dog, her inner Republican, but all she offered voters was her own crass opportunism and Kristi's speeding tickets. It was not enough. Noem beat her speeding away...by 7,000 votes.
So, where does the pseudo-tsunami of Republican ascendancy leave South Dakota Democrats?
With all due respect to Tim Johnson, "Democrat" is now a broken and perhaps useless identity. The final legacy of Herseth-Sandlin may end up being that she took the fragile, wobbly, but noble party legacy of McGovern, Abourezk, and Daschle, and kicked it in the teeth until it had no life at all.
It is worthy of note that even at the age of 90, soft-spoken patriarch, George McGovern, can still articulate the core values of the New Deal Democratic Party better than any current Democrat in Congress. Jim Abourezk can still give the best populist stump speech about why a poor farmer in Buffalo County should vote Democratic. Tom Daschle can still find the essential points of compromise and hold true to principle in the ugly process of deal-making, better than Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Max Baucus, or John Thune.
Congresswoman Herseth-Sandlin did not seek to build on the great legacy of South Dakota Democrats. She did not even seek to re-invent the Democratic brand for a new politically difficult age. She campaigned to destroy it so she could get re-elected. That will be her legacy.
Molding in the wreckage is a question that may offer people who believe in an activist federal government the seed of renewal.
Could Dr. Kevin Weiland have beaten Kristi Noem?
This is a fundamental question that every Democrat in South Dakota (even those who are rushing to re-register as Republicans this week) should be asking themselves and their friends. A new beginning is embedded in the conclusions Democrats reach about this question.
Kevin Weiland is a wildly popular physician in Rapid City. By "wildly popular" I mean that his patients love him, and his Republican patients listen to him. He is intelligent and well educated, but more importantly, he has a great sense of humor. As a desperate minority, Democrats have not had a sense of humor in a long, long time.
Weiland has a deep working knowledge of the health economy. But to Democratic polls in Washington he had a fatal flaw. He was politically inexperienced and naïve. He wasn't a serious politician. Max Sandlin made more than a few snide, condescending comments about Weiland being a light-weight. Stephanie treated Dr. Weiland and the people who supported him like dandruff on her shoulder. Meanwhile, Republicans were nominating Kristi Noem.
On the policy issues of health care, science and the environment, education, the farm economy, and Native Americans (who make up a large part of Weiland's medical practice), Kevin Weiland has more knowledge than any candidate on the ballot. Just as importantly, he had a new way of thinking about national problems that were stalemated in Congress. A new way. What he did not have was knowledge of how Washington works.
The fact is that Kevin Weiland embodied the perfect combination of qualities for a 2010 Democratic candidate, beginning with the fact that he was not an incumbent Washington insider.
From the first moment Kevin Weiland called and asked what I thought about challenging Congresswoman Herseth-Sandlin in the Democratic primary, I could sense ambivalence in his voice. He was confident that he could make a good Congressman, but he was not sure he could be a good politician. He was very clear that he did not want a career in politics. In traditional politics, that ambivalence is the kiss of death. But if he had shared his ambivalence with voters by explaining that he loved the practice of medicine and his patients, intended to spend six years in Congress helping to give birth to a new national health system, then return to his medical practice, voters would have embraced the distinction between serving the people's interests when called upon, and becoming a career Washington insider.
The American people do not want life-terms for members of Congress. More importantly, they do not want candidates who campaign as if they are entitled to their seat by virtue of knowing their way around the backrooms of Washington. If Kevin Weiland had taken the challenge of limiting his tenure in Washington, Noem would have been forced to explain why she would not take the same pledge. Advantage Weiland.
Why health reform?
It is important to remember that in the early summer of '09, before the town halls, before the "death panel" fear-mongering, President Obama decided to push health reform because it was at the heart of the American economic crisis and at the heart of the federal budget crisis. The federal government cannot square itself unless it can contain the inefficiency, corporate greed, and runaway costs of the private health system.
Weiland understood the connection between health reform and the economy because, as a physician, he lives it every day. He is aware, to the most obscure detail, how the current system is dominated by private insurance companies that coerce the relationship between patients and doctors.
Kristi Noem understands health reform as a one line ideological talking point. Weiland understands it as a problem of family economics and security.
The Republican alternative to a national health insurance system is not freedom of choice. It is imprisonment by private insurance. Kristi Noem campaigned on simple-minded cliches about socialism and ObamaCare. She could have been called out as an apologist for greedy insurance companies. Herseth-Sandlin was mute.
Why was the health reform debate so politically critical in shaping the '10 election?
Was the problem of exploding health costs a figment of Barack Obama's imagination? Was the private insurance system really delivering affordable, efficient health care on its own in a way we just didn't understand? Was the push for reform a Don Quixote-like adventure by an administration obsessed with expanding the federal government?
Health reform was the chosen battlefield of the right wing of a Republican Party that had been thrashed in the '08 election. It was not chosen because Republicans had alternative answers to basic policy questions. It was chosen for political advantage.
Health reform was chosen to illustrate the century old ideological split that has divided the nation since the rise of the industrial economy at the end of the 19th century. Simply put: Is health care a human right or a private privilege? Are Republicans willing to let citizens who cannot afford health insurance die to prove their ideological point about personal responsibility? If health care is a right of citizenship, is it a responsibility of popularly elected government or the anonymous bureaucrats of private insurance corporations. Is the health of the citizenry a matter of public interest or private advantage?
Republicans have never been able to explain how a human right to equal opportunity can be jammed into the private market system where the rich can purchase high quality health care while the poor, the young, and the old are discarded.
Republicans could never win a debate about health reform on its merits. That's why so much Tea Party rage got tongue twisted by demanding that government get its cotton pickin' hands off their Medicare coverage.
Republican leaders, channeling the anxiety of Big Insurance, Big Pharmaceutical and Big Hospitals, brilliantly conflated the need for activist government with fear of big government. The two are not the same. It was a brilliant political tactic, not a policy prescription.
On balance, voters want government to protect them from unaccountable private greed. Voters recognize the failures of the state-sponsored corporate economy. Voters want the services that the federal government provides. But they do not want inefficient, bloated, big, permanent federal bureaucracy. Without ever speaking to the problems of health delivery in the real world, or in people's daily lives, Republicans simply invented the threat of a "government takeover" and rode it to the polls.
Only a health care professional like Kevin Weiland had a chance to talk voters off the cliff of conservative hysteria. Only a physician had the ability to explain to independent voters how destructive the current private insurance system is to the nation's health and economy. Only Weiland could challenge Republican hysteria that ObamaCare would put the government between the doctor and the patient.
Make no mistake. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin is smart, well-educated, and intellectually understands the policy issues of health care as well as anyone in Congress. She is a wonk in the best sense of the word. But she does not have a bit of empathy for real families struggling against the monopoly power of health insurance companies. Stephanie's constant triangulation of the health reform issue created the space for Kristi Noem to shout platitudes from the cliff. Against Weiland, Noem would have come across as a shrill, uninformed, simple-minded, know-nothing ideologue.
Family doctor against shrill ideologue...not a bad starting point for Weiland.
It is hard for South Dakotans to grasp the pain of the urban industrial class. South Dakota voters simply have no experience with industry. Urban industrialism is as alien to a conservative farmer in Huron as the idea of a thousand Mexican illegals working in a turkey processing plant. We know it's there, but we just can't grasp it.
But South Dakota is the epicenter of the biggest economic, health, environmental and community contradiction of the nation: the industrial farm economy. This is something we do know about, and it is a part of federal policy where we have the choice of either leading the way to a new century or burying our heads in the muck of our own hypocrisy.
It was the consensus of the very best Democratic analysts in Washington that Dr. Weiland's writings about food and nutrition would have destroyed him among the farm voters of the South Dakota. As one Washington analyst told me, "You can't win a congressional seat in South Dakota by attacking corn."
Weiland's writings (The Dakota Diet) are, indeed, terrifying. He warns his patients that the nation is in the middle of an obesity epidemic that leads to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and myriad orthopedic breakdowns. People need to start eating healthy. If that isn't subversive, I don't know what is.
The next thing he might say is that beef can be healthy if it is raised on the native grass pastures of South Dakota instead of corn in Kansas feedlots, and it tastes better with vegetables. That's a voice of extremism that must be stopped at all costs.
The problem of American farm policy is at least forty years old, and it is uniquely Democratic. The social contract embedded in the farm bill was crafted in the 1930s to create a federally subsidized safety net for farmers, and cheap food for consumers. Franklin Roosevelt saw it as a matter of economic and national security. But in exchange for guaranteeing financial security for farmers, we were suppose to get healthy food, healthy land and waterways, robust farm towns, and new, prosperous generations of family farmers. We got nothin'.
And yet the logic of the farm bill requires Democratic candidates in every election to sacrifice the growing urban constituencies who want safe food, clean water, and healthy land, to the shrinking constituencies of large-scale industrial agriculture.
Before the national obesity epidemic, people in the cities were willing to let farm state members of congress write farm policy. John Thune once famously told a reporter that the farm bill is "ours" and urban foodies and environmentalists should just leave it to us. Those days are past. The biofuels revolution and the obesity epidemic has turned the entire dynamic of farm policy on its head. South Dakota politicians are trapped. They cannot go forward to a new farm policy, and they cannot defend current farm policy.
Kristi Noem was totally exposed on her family history of accepting massive federal farm subsidies. She has received $2.7 million in farm subsidies over the last decade and her husband sells federally subsidized crop insurance. The Noem hypocrisy offered a perfect opening for an opponent to challenge her commitment to cut wasteful federal spending. But Herseth-Sandlin was paralyzed by her own family history. Noem exposed her flank. Herseth-Sandlin could not attack.
Both women are trapped by their insistence that they are deficit hawks, while they are up to the elbows at the public trough. Weiland, on the other hand, speaking to farmers as a physician, could challenge the distortions of the system, call out Noem as the welfare farmer she is, and propose new ways of guaranteeing a farm safety net that aren't as wasteful or destructive as the current food system.
Weiland could have demanded that Noem take a pledge to refuse all federal farm welfare and stop selling crop insurance, during her tenure as a congresswoman. Or, better yet, she could have pledged to lead a crusade to reform the wasteful excesses of federal farm policy. Why should any politician receive a paycheck from the federal government, he might have asked, while voting in favor of subsidies that put money in the pocket of the same politician. Advantage Weiland.
The electorate is changing (both politically and metabolically), and self-interest is a complex set of often contradictory values. There are new approaches to voters that do not fit traditional partisan categories. There was room for Weiland to maneuver that was impossible for Herseth-Sandlin or Noem. How would the farm vote have divided itself if Weiland had reached out to fat farmers with high blood pressure and fat farm wives with elevated cholesterol or metabolic syndrome?
Perhaps the greatest failure of the Herseth-Sandlin campaign was that her television advertising campaign attacked the Democratic Party at the same time she needed a grassroots ground game to get out the vote. She could never square the circle. She suffered a serious enthusiasm gap on the ground. For every step she made to the right in her voting record, she lost her base on the left. Remember, this is a woman who won her '08 election with 70% of the vote. In 2010 she ended up appealing to no one, and it wasn't because Kristi Noem was such a compelling, brilliant candidate. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin lost this one on her own.
Democrats do not just have an enthusiasm gap. They don't just have a finance and organizational gap. They have a charisma gap. Not a single leader in South Dakota can inspire or motivate the base. One depressed Democratic analyst told me after the election, with no small spit of sarcasm, "We need a demagogue."
In the closing weeks of the campaign, under the tutelage of Steve Jarding, Scott Heidepriem tried to inspire from the stump. But it was too little too late. And besides, Heidepriem and Herseth-Sandlin almost never campaigned together. There was no unity campaign. There was no synergy. There were only two ships adrift in the night.
It is at least possible to imagine that the campaign would have had a different feel and different grassroots calculus if Weiland had been in the race. He would have mobilized his colleagues, young professionals. He could have put an army of white-coated physicians and nurses in the field. Where Herseth-Sandlin ran a campaign afraid of her own shadow, Weiland could have run with idealism and enthusiasm for the future.
Among the hard-headed, brilliant, political pros who run the DCCC the idea that idealism and enthusiasm matter seems naïve. They would do well to meditate this week on the success of the Tea Party, a movement of inspired idealism and enthusiasm.
It was never possible for Herseth-Sandlin to hold her seat. She squandered it. But Dr. Kevin Weiland...that campaign just might have been worth the fight.
Democrats and Independents (and Republicans)had no choice in this past election for all the reasons Sam Hurst outlined.