Tuesday, October 12, 2010

He's Not a Witch Either

By Mike Dorf

The NY Times has an interesting profile of Chris Coons, the Democratic candidate for Senate who got the nomination more or less by default.  The core of the Times story is that Coons has been avoiding direct attacks on Christine O'Donnell, essentially letting the media and his opponent's old videotape do the job for him, while he focuses mostly on his own solid, if boring, substance.  You could have written more or less the same story about Andrew Cuomo's approach to dealing with Carl Paladino (who is also not a witch, or so I'm told).

Cuomo, of course, starts out much better known than Coons for a number of reasons: His father was governor; he was a Cabinet Secretary; he ran for governor himself a few years ago; he has been a successful attorney general; and perhaps most importantly, he seems to have avoided most of the scandals in which NY state politics has been embroiled in the last few years.  But the thing is, Coons will almost certainly end up a star--not just by defeating O'Donnell but in what he accomplishes in the Senate.  If he does, remember that you heard it here first.

I got to know Coons a little when we were both in college because I sometimes debated against him.  He was terrific: knowledgeable, smart, and extremely witty.  Of course, that information is a quarter century out of date, but while poor public speakers can become serviceable or even good at it, I doubt that someone who was a first-rate public speaker at 20 would somehow lose it at 47.

Perhaps more importantly, Coons does not have the resume of someone who always wanted to go into politics.  I never knew him very well, so I could be wron, but based on what's in the public record, he looks like someone who was perfectly happy with a private-sector career and involvement in public-spirited projects on the side.  I'm sure he has ambition, but I doubt he has the kind of driving needs-to-run-for-President ambition that can make a Senator an insufferable blowhard.

Again, I realize this is based on very little, but I suspect that within a decade, Chris Coons will be a national political figure, while Christine O'Donnell will be either the answer to a trivia question or the host of a FoxNews show.


michael a. livingston said...

I'm not surprised you like Coons--he has essentially the same resume (Ivy League schools, wealthy family, the requisite year abroad without any serious follow-up) that most people you and I know probably have. Here's my prediction: O'Donnell will be a national figure while Coons--even if elected--will rapidly become a back-bencher. But you're welcome to come to the debate in Delaware tomorrow nigh (also on CNN) and see for yourself.

Michael C. Dorf said...


I can't speak for you, but most people I know do not come from wealthy families. (Not that it matters, but neither do I. Before they retired, both of my parents were career civil servants, one a public school teacher, the other an actuary for the NYS Insurance Dep't. My paternal grandfather worked in the Post Office his whole adult life. My maternal grandmother, who was widowed relatively young, was a bookkeeper. My great-grandparents were penniless immigrants.)

It is a now-tired conflation by the right to portray well-educated liberals from modest backgrounds as elitist as a means of distracting people from the fact that they support policies that would benefit the poor and the middle class, while those on the right adopt populist rhetoric in the service of the super-rich. The tea-party attacks on Obama fit this pattern perfectly.

Now, if you're saying that elite educational institutions and college education more generally are increasingly beyond the reach of the middle class and the poor, I agree that this is a real problem. But it surely won't be solved by the likes of O'Donnell.

michael a. livingston said...

My point is, if you switched my CV with Coons', other than his being Protestant and spending a year in Africa and my Jewish/Israel,I doubt anyone could tell the difference. Whatever you think of O'Donnell, her life experiences--being unemployed, owing money, even her admittedly offbeat spiritual searches--are a good deal closer to that of the average voter than her opponent, a difference that I don't think can be overcome by suggesting that she is somehow being used by others more powerful than she. On the other hand, I should disclose that I have met and spoken with O'Donnell, so if she is indeed a witch it is entirely possible if not likely that I have fallen under her spell (it would hardly be the first time) . . .

Michael C. Dorf said...

Rational voters would not care nearly as much about whether a candidate's life story resembles their own or even about whether the candidate is a good person, as about whether the candidate takes policy positions that are in the interests of those voters. And voters can be rational. This is a big piece of why, for all the denigration of limousine liberals, Ted Kennedy kept getting re-elected.

michael a. livingston said...

But wouldn't democratic theory imply that people with a variety of experiences as well as outlooks should be represented? Isn't that a reason, for example, for diversity programs? This, as opposed to say four-fifths of my comments, is actually intended to be serious.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Yes, of course people with a variety of experiences and outlooks
should be represented. But as between someone who shares your
experiences but favors policies that you disfavor and one who favors policies you favor but has a different background, I would think that most voters would/should prefer the latter. That is, experience and background can be a tiebreaker or even a bit more than that, but it shouldn't swamp a candidate's agenda.

Joe said...

Palin is a "national figure" too ... she isn't Vice President though. She apparently felt that was better than staying in the job she was elected to, being bored with it or soemthing.

O'Donnell is also better as a "national figure" by all appearances, that is, a spokeswoman for a certain segment, than public office. As a freshman, Coons probably will -- like my junior senator -- be a "back-bencher." A good steady public official.

As for diversity, that's great, though the average person also knows ne'er'do'wells that they don't want to trust with authority too. That's the part of "diversity programs" some elide past: the idea that it isn't just for diversity. Sotomayor, e.g., is well talented for her position besides all the rest.

Playful or not, your comments leave something to be desired.

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